Public Safety Advocate: GAO FirstNet Report, Needed from Congress NOW!

Many of you may have read the headlines about the Government Accountability Office (GAO) review of the status of FirstNet. On the whole, the GAO gave FirstNet (Built with AT&T) very high marks for its progress during the five-year buildout. However, it felt the FirstNet Authority’s oversite did not live up to requirements as stated in the federal law that created FirstNet:

“Since awarding the contract, the GAO noted, FirstNet has shared little to no information about contract oversight, leading to speculation about the extent of FirstNet’s oversight of AT&T, which could affect network users’ and stakeholders’ continued support of the program.”

It went on to make a series of recommendations including:

“The GAO is recommending FirstNet’s Chief Executive Officer take steps to ensure the integrated master schedule for the program is developed and maintained under the best practices provided in GAO’s Schedule Assessment Guide; identify additional information about the program, including FirstNet’s oversight and monitoring activities, that can be shared with public-safety stakeholders and periodically communicate and report the information to them; share relevant portions of the accepted state-specific commitment reports with the states, as specified in the contract; and, in consultation with public-safety stakeholders and its contractor, as appropriate, identify and obtain periodic information or meaningful indicators on end-users’ satisfaction that would serve as a metric to gauge performance quality, including the effect of the FirstNet network and products on public-safety operations.”

This appears to indicate the FirstNet Authority needs to better communicate with the public-safety community, the ultimate users of FirstNet, and be more responsive to the public-safety community’s comments and concerns. According the GAO, this includes notifying the states of FirstNet progress and activities. I have no visibility into what the FirstNet Authority has been doing in this regard, but I know FirstNet (Built with AT&T) has been much better about providing information on new Band-14 installations, new builds, new devices that have been certified and accepted for FirstNet use, and new applications that have been added to its app store.

I also know there are areas of the United States where work has not yet been completed and some public-safety users are not satisfied with the rate of progress. Yet FirstNet recently stated that in the coming months it will finish 80% of the required buildout. This percentage of buildout is good for public safety, it is ahead of schedule, and for AT&T it triggers a payment from FirstNet of $1 Billion of funds allocated for FirstNet and funded by spectrum auctions. 

The GAO stated that FirstNet lacked a “reliable master schedule” to review communications with relevant stakeholders regarding contract oversight and meaningful information about end-users’ satisfaction. I tend to think this finding may be a difference between a fully-funded government contract and a private/public partnership. The RFP included milestones and other gauges of progress and AT&T has been blowing past all these in rapid succession. As for end-user satisfaction, many of us hear from end users and I would assume FirstNet Authority folks who are out and about are talking to agencies on a daily basis and are relaying this feedback to the upper echelon of the Authority. I think this may be a nit-pick due to a “this is the way it is done within the Federal Government system” approach, or there may actually be some issues that need to be corrected. If the latter is the case, I have faith the executives at the FirstNet Authority will respond to the GAO and take any necessary actions.

House and Senate Activity 

First is the legislation with the shortest fuse: The repeal of the T-band. A bill in the Senate (S. 2748) to repeal the T-band was sent to committee at the end of October 2019 and it continues to sit in the Commerce, Science, and Transportation committee. A month ago, I sent an email to my Senator asking for support for this bill even though Arizona is not affected. Unfortunately, the canned response I received was a thank-you for my concern about the Impeachment. Getting any attention from the Senate seems to be a lost cause unless comments are by phone, and then calls are only counted by a staffer. 

Meanwhile, the House version of this bill, introduced in January 2019 (H.R.451), was sent to the sub-committee on Communications and Technology at the end of January 2019. I cannot stress enough that it is time to pick up the phone and call your House and Senate representatives to implore them to support these bills. Time is running out for the eleven major metro areas and the surrounding suburbs using the T-band. The Chairman of the FCC has endorsed the repeal, the GAO has requested the repeal, the IAFC, IACP and NSA support the repeal, and NPSTC issued two reports describing the damage to public safety-communities if these bills are not passed and signed into law. We cannot afford to wait until the last minute, we need this repeal NOW!

Time and again it has been proven that in 2022 the T-band is not worth the $Billions those in the 2012 Congress thought it would be. It has also been proven time and again that the highest and best use of T-band spectrum in these eleven metro areas is and will be what it is being used for today: to be able to communicate, dispatch public safety assets, manage incidents, and for the safety of public-safety personnel as well as the community. 

If we lose this fight and the T-band must be returned to the FCC, the displaced departments will have nowhere to relocate their systems and no funds to do so. We will be in a real bind. We must be successful! We must convince Congress and the Executive Branch to act on what the GAO, FCC, and the public-safety community already know. The T-band giveback must be repealed NOW!

Then we need to throw our support behind the recently unveiled House of Representatives $706 Billion infrastructure plan. In addition to massive amounts of funding for roads, bridges, and airports, this bill includes two potential expenditures that should be of interest to the public-safety community. The first is $86 Billion for expanding broadband access in rural areas, and the second, which really caught my attention, is $12 Billion for “Next-Generation” 9-1-1 for emergency calls (NG911).

My concern is that because this is such a huge plan with so much money required to fund it, these two measures might be stricken before they are written into a formal bill. I would feel better if the House would put these two items into a separate bill that might have a better chance to survive. 

A few staffers I have discussed this with don’t understand the need and ramifications for NG911 and that it is the on-ramp for data, text, pictures, and video to be processed and vetted by EOCs and then sent to first responders to better prepare them for what they are facing. Once I make this clear to them, they grasp the need to fund NG911 sooner rather than later. However, we need to start pressuring the Senators and Representatives who will ultimately make the decisions.

As I have related before, when we were walking the halls of Congress before 2012 to win approval for what became FirstNet, we were guided by several congressional staffers. One staffer, now the Executive Director of the FirstNet Authority, taught us we could gain more support working with staffers involved in communications than by having short meetings with individual Members of Congress. 

While we did meet with a number of Members, we made much better headway by educating communications staffers about why we were pursuing broadband spectrum and funding from Congress. Congress Members meet with many people who try to convince them with words and/or monetary contributions to pay attention to their interests (many of these are professional lobbyists). Public-safety organizations including the IACP, IAFC, NAS, and others have people on their staffs who interface with Congress. They know if they have the support of staffers it works to our advantage. Public safety is not in the business of handing out donations to help our causes so we make our cases based on realities such as improving safety for our first responders and the general public. 

Now that Congress may be able to turn its attention to other matters of interest to the citizens of the United States, I believe it is time for public safety to become more active in working with Congress. We have great representation from the major public-safety organizations but we need to become involved as citizens and as part of the public-safety community. It is time to make our voices heard. One way you can help is by contacting your Senators and Representatives and stating our case. 

Push-To-Talk LMR and FirstNet (LTE)

I continue to raise the issue of Push-To-Talk (PTT) interoperability over FirstNet because FirstNet was created to provide a Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN) with full interoperability between public-safety agencies. This cannot be achieved using Land Mobile Radio (LMR) systems of today because the frequencies LMR is licensed to use are spread out over so many portions of the radio spectrum. FirstNet’s goal is to solve this issue by creating a single, accessible broadband network not to replace LMR systems but to augment them and provide:

  • True nationwide interoperability
  • True device-to-device interoperability (on-network)
  • The ability to respond to mutual-aid calls across a county or across the country while remaining in contact with the home ECC as well as with public-safety personnel on scene regardless of location

While we are on our way, two items are keeping public safety from attaining these objectives:

  • Common data/video applications to provide access to all departments
  • Push-to-talk full interoperability: LMR-to-FirstNet and FirstNet-to-FirstNet

The issue with today’s push-to-talk is that there are four approved PTT vendors on the FirstNet network and it is rumored yet another is on the horizon. Some of these vendors have demonstrated their PTT can interoperate with the other PTT systems. However, others refuse to allow any vendor’s PTT to interoperate with theirs and are thus blocking FirstNet PTT interoperability. So far, neither FirstNet (Built with AT&T) nor the FirstNet Authority has offered a solution. Will it be worse when there is a new kid on the block? 

One solution would be to rescind all but one vendor’s approval but that won’t solve the problem. Some departments prefer one vendor and some prefer another. Having choices in PTT vendors is a good thing, but it has created a lack of interoperability over FirstNet. 

I believe this can be solved. Consensus among approved PTT vendors that have demonstrated PTT interoperability is that if permitted access, they could provide interoperability with the other systems. This means we need to convince all FirstNet PTT vendors to accept the requirement for interoperability and get on with it. It is past time to step up and address the issue of FirstNet-to-FirstNet PTT interoperability.

LMR-to-FirstNet PTT

That leaves another important piece of the PTT puzzle, which is the ability to connect an existing LMR system to FirstNet for PTT services. There are a number of ways to do this depending on the type of LMR network. Some PTT vendors have come up with workarounds for some of the more expensive solutions. NPSTC is addressing this issue as are others, but the bottom line appears to be that each vendor that claims to be able to solve this connectivity issue wants to keep its solution to itself. There are efforts to establish a more open standard for how to achieve this goal but as with most “standards,” far too many organizations are trying to implement their own version of a standard. 

Situations such as this take someone or an organization at the top of the stack to take charge and drive the efforts toward a consensus. The 3GPP has taken on this role with LTE, and now 5G, and has made progress. While it knows how to do this, it is absolutely the wrong group to address this particular issue. The 3GPP only has a few people who truly understand the requirements of LMR-to-LTE integration. All the others are primarily interested in commercial cellular systems because that is where the companies they represent make their money.

The Public Safety Technology Alliance (PSTA) would be an appropriate organization to undertake this task and NPSTC is another. However, neither of these have enough public-safety communications people or cellular people who can devote time to develop a better set of solutions. I hope this will resolve itself for the good of the industry but at this point I am not sure there is one organization within the public-safety community that could drive this mission and resolve the problem in a timely manner.

Winding Down

I am seeing signs that 2020 will be a great year for public-safety communications. FirstNet (Built with AT&T) has announced that within a few months it will reach 80% of the build-out goal, LMR systems are being improved and expanded, and more agencies are joining together to share resources to reduce the total cost of ownership by spreading costs across multiple agencies.

I am looking forward to learning about the next FirstNet PTT vendor and what it will have to offer. I am also looking forward to IWCE, APCO, IACP, and other events to see what vendors have cooked up for the public-safety community. When we started the journey to what is now FirstNet, we were told the size of the public-safety industry was not interesting to most LTE device makers that deal in tens of thousands or even millions of smart devices. Perhaps on a good day, public safety would bring less than ten million customers to the market.

It is satisfying that once FirstNet was up and running, Sonim believed in the market and was soon joined by Samsung, Apple, Kyocera, other phone vendors, and traditional LMR companies such as Motorola, L3Harris, JVCKenwood, and others. Today, Samsung alone offers fourteen or more devices that are Band 14-capable, and Apple has added Band 14 to its products as a standard. New applications are being introduced on an almost-weekly basis, and IoT devices are being deployed over FirstNet.

This reminds me of an oft-used phrase from a movie, “If we build it, they will come.” And they did, not only vendors but the public-safety community with one million and counting FirstNet connections today. While FirstNet is still in its infancy, it is growing up faster than any of us expected. Even so, there is much to be done and many are working toward its maturity. 

Once FirstNet is certified as meeting 100% of its buildout requirements, I don’t expect for a moment that buildout will stop. There is more LTE to be put on new towers, 5G at low-band, mid-band, and MM wave bands to be deployed, more devices coming, and a lot more. The work won’t stop simply because the five-year build goal has been met. A wireless LMR or broadband network is never DONE! There are always more dead spots to fill, more coverage needed for new housing and industry buildouts, and more inbuilding coverage to be had. 

Closing Remarks

Actions speak louder than words. I find no fault with Verizon Wireless’ Superbowl ad since it was to honor the public-safety community and was not about 5G or Verizon. It was well done and I am sure it was appreciated by members of public safety who were watching the game and by those who had to work during Super Bowl Sunday protecting us.

Great sentiment, but you need to put this ad in perspective. According to various sources, the average cost of a thirty-second Super Bowl ad this year was $5.25 Million. I asked around and was told that AT&T had decided not to buy an ad. Instead, FirstNet (Built with AT&T) spent heavily to make sure the network provided the best possible coverage, specifically Band 14 coverage including at least two cows and a staff working with the emergency communications center for public safety and security activities in and around Hard Rock Stadium.

With the money FirstNet (AT&T) saved by not running an ad, it can add 21 or so new AT&T/FirstNet cell sites at a cost of about $250K each or upgrade several hundred sites to include Band 14. 

Commitment to public safety: Words or actions? You decide.

Andrew M. Seybold
©Andrew Seybold, Inc. 2020

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