It seems as though AT&T has had the FirstNet contract forever, especially since many agencies are already up and running on FirstNet. Yet at last year’s IWCE conference in Las Vegas, FirstNet did not officially award the contract to AT&T until the last day of the show. Expectations were clearly in the camp that AT&T would win the FirstNet contract as it did and it was only after the court dismissed Rivada’s lawsuit, leaving AT&T as the only qualified bidder. Until the contract was awarded, there was always the chance that it would, once again, be challenged in court, but fortunately that did not happen.
At that time, we all expected to wait through the 5-year build plan for FirstNet band 14 before FirstNet would become a nationwide network with pre-emption. However, AT&T gave public safety a huge bonus with the use of all AT&T LTE spectrum and priority from the day a state opted in, followed by full pre-emption, not only on FirstNet spectrum but on ALL AT&T LTE spectrum. Further, AT&T promised that the FirstNet core (the Enhanced Packet Core, EPC) that will be the heart of the network would be up and running by the end of the first quarter of 2018.
This year should be the IWCE’s coming out party for FirstNet. However, as we look back at the past 12 months, is it difficult to comprehend that this year’s conference is the first with the FirstNet Authority and FirstNet Ecosystem up and running. All 50 states, the District of Columbia, and all U.S. Territories have opted in and many states and the tribal nations have been meeting with the FirstNet/AT&T team for months now. It is almost anti-climactic for this IWCE to celebrate FirstNet. So many FirstNet goals have already been finalized and AT&T is moving forward with site build-outs in metro, suburban, and rural areas. AT&T has also made it clear that every enhancement to its commercial networks including more LTE sites, in-building coverage, 5G small cells, and whatever broadband technology is deployed during the next 25 years will be made available to FirstNet as well as AT&T’s commercial customers.
As I sit in my office preparing for this year’s IWCE, the conference sessions, exhibits and, of course, the parties and opportunities to meet old friends and make new ones, I have to think about all the IWCEs that have passed since the 2006 IWCE keynote by Morgan O’Brien describing a world of broadband services for public safety. The goal for data services actually goes back even further to 1996 when Chief Harlin McEwen (Ret) and others fought to obtain spectrum in the 700-MHz band that in those days was designated as narrowband for voice and wideband (50-KHz channels) for data. Having this spectrum encouraged public safety to work toward reallocation of 10 MHz for broadband followed by 10 more adjacent Megahertz, which was referred to as the “D” block.
The Speed of Progress
Looking back, we see that while it took a long time to reach the point where FirstNet was formed, it took what seemed a lot longer for FirstNet to get its act together, and then the bidding process. Legal maneuvers seemed to take another eternity but in reality, they delayed progress by months not years. Once AT&T had the contract, it took a while for both FirstNet and AT&T to figure out how to work together. Remember that during the bidding the two parties were not permitted to start working on cohesive plans to integrate FirstNet’s existing work with the states and AT&T’s staff. There were some missteps early in the process, there were FirstNet meetings with states followed a week later by AT&T meetings that resulted in confusion on the part of some states as well as the first responder community. However, it was all sorted out and in less than a year now, we have a solid FirstNet network up and running, we have pricing, we know the coverage for each jurisdiction today and how it will be built out over the coming years, and we also know that AT&T/FirstNet has pledged to fix coverage issues and work with local areas to find ways to fund additional coverage not only for public safety, but also to help rural citizens gain access to broadband services. The issue of which Push-To-Talk (PTT) vendors or how many will be supported on FirstNet has become a sticking point for some areas. So far, there has been no definitive response but I expect that to come in the near term.
There are still many still challenges ahead. A major network operator that did not even bid on the contract has come back to the party late and apparently thinks it can simply declare its intentions to duplicate FirstNet. Some local public safety agencies are not ready to fully embrace FirstNet until it has better coverage, so this network seems to believe it can compete with FirstNet by building out its own core, offering pre-emption, and building band 14 into its devices. What it doesn’t seem to realize is that many of its existing public safety customers, while happy with its broadband services until FirstNet, now view this vendor with disdain for trying to throw a monkey wrench into the FirstNet program.
The FirstNet network is not only up and running nationwide, it will continue to be enhanced as AT&T enhances its own network and builds out FirstNet band 14 spectrum. AT&T has pledged that the FirstNet network will not only benefit from the band 14 build-out, it will also benefit from all of AT&T’s build-outs for the next 25 years (the contract duration) including the upcoming deployment of small cells for 5G systems, smart city build-out, and more.
Back to IWCE
This conference is a great place to go to listen to some of the best in the business, panel discussions where there is not always agreement, and walk the show floor looking for new and exciting products. I expect this year’s IWCE to be full of new tools to help arm the public safety community. There will be new handheld and tablet devices, new vehicular modems, new vehicle antenna systems that will include functionality for FirstNet, LMR systems, GPS, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth. Software? Yep. Internet of Things (IoT)? Sure. Devices? Check. Push-to-talk bridges to provide interoperable PTT between FirstNet and LMR systems as well as between different PTT vendors over LTE? Yes. Finally, I expect other companies to join Harris and demonstrate LMR multiband handhelds with built-in FirstNet LTE capability.
I am always asked at events such as this how a company, established or start-up, can gain attention from the people who need to know about their product or service. The first step is to determine where the first point of contact is with FirstNet. Is it the FirstNet Authority’s CTO and technical staff in Boulder? Is it the National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST), or the Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR) lab that was established to work with FirstNet? What about going directly to AT&T? How about partnering with a company already approved as part of the FirstNet Ecosystem? All of these are valid questions and the answers are usually complex and not well received by those asking the question.
It is important to understand that for every company already doing business with FirstNet there are dozens of companies that want to be engaged. It is not so much understanding who the right person or group to contact, it is how to catch their attention when you are one of a host of companies with great ideas and products competing for mindshare. These folks are already overloaded with other responsibilities and inundated with companies like yours that have a better idea, a better product, or a unique approach to solving a problem. One way is to exhibit at IWCE to show your product to those who will, potentially, be using it, and garnering a ground swell of support or, though the term is being overused today, have your product or service go viral.
Unfortunately, over the years I have seen companies that are convinced by someone that he or she can guarantee them access and product acceptance. This is like promising they can make it rain on demand. If you engage them it will be both expensive and usually a waste of time. Those who make the decisions already know who these people are and generally tune them out. My advice to companies that want the attention of someone in the FirstNet food chain is to offer a product or service that solves a problem for public safety or saves FirstNet money, and be able to verbalize the result your product or service will provide. You should not listen to only one pundit or consultant and you should be wary of someone who can “guarantee” they will put you in touch with the right people or have your product reviewed by them. A true professional will tell you they may be able to assist you and they may be able to help you reach someone but they will also tell you several other things. First, they cannot guarantee the outcome. If they do put you in front of a decision maker, it will be up to you to prove your product solves some type of problem or saves money. Whiz-bang and flash won’t take you past the first meeting. Next, don’t listen to only one person or one company, and last, let them help prepare both your product and your PowerPoints to offer your product or service in its best light.
I will be surprised if this year’s IWCE is a low-key event. With all the panels and sessions scheduled, the keynotes to be given, and all the products and services on the show floor, this will be one of the most upbeat IWCEs we have attended in a long time. While most have been upbeat, this year represents the culmination of all the previous years. All of the dedicated people and organizations will come together not to look into the future and wonder when FirstNet will be real, but to look into the future and see how FirstNet will help our public safety community everyday they have access to it.
Please note that because of the IWCE show there will not be a Public Safety Advocate published next week but we will be back the following week with a recap of the show and perhaps more.
Andrew M Seybold
©2018 Andrew Seybold, Inc.