Public Safety Advocate: IACP Conference and Show Floor

The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) conference was held in Chicago this year and it was, I believe, better attended by both the public and vendors than in recent years. On Sunday, I sat in on the Communications and Technology Committee meeting and as always, it was an interesting meeting with a variety of presenters delivering pertinent information. The show floor was crowded, even on Monday when the President was speaking at the conference. Those of us wandering the floor during that time had to bypass a few booths where TVs were set up to broadcast his comments, but it was business as usual for the rest of the exhibits.

I attended a few sessions and several vendor-specific meetings to learn about new technologies and trends. I had a list of thirty-eight exhibits I wanted to visit and added a few more after discussions with others. During the two days, I was able to walk the floor and see all of them and I had time to stop and talk with several other vendors as well. The two leading communications trends I saw were the integration of Land Mobile Radio (LMR) and LTE by multiple vendors, and new, hardened tablets with both in-vehicle and out-of-vehicle capabilities.

One presentation I attended during the Communications and Technology meeting was given by John Matthews, Interim Chief of Critical Systems for Cook County, IL Emergency Management and Regional Security. John began by saying they require redundancy everywhere when it comes to communications and other tools. This led to his presentation of how they contracted with Cinetcomm for fully-redundant land mobile radio and broadband capabilities. Cinetcomm has developed a redundant communications interface that employs traditional terrestrial networks, when available, for both LMR and broadband services. When terrestrial networks are not available, the interface seamlessly switches to satellite communications. This provides the agency with a fully-redundant communications system for its command vehicles and at its emergency operations center. 

Other sessions included a few from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and a spectrum recap by Stu Overby who leads the spectrum taskforce for the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC). Stu made a point to discuss the lack of progress by Congress on negating the current requirement included in the law establishing FirstNet that eleven metro and surrounding area users vacate the shared TV spectrum known as the T-band. NPSTC was instrumental in researching and then publishing a report and update on the T-band that showed the cost of relocation as being prohibitive (multi-millions). It further pointed out that there is no other public-safety land Mobile Radio spectrum available for relocating the displaced agencies. We really need to press Congress to act. The bill sitting in the House is straightforward, consisting of a few lines that would simply repeal the law requiring public safety to move off of the spectrum. 

Many of us have proven time and time again that the perception that billion-dollar windfalls to the U.S. Treasury from auctioning this spectrum is no longer realistic, and really never was, because only a few T-band users have access to the corresponding TV spectrum. For the most part, each metro area uses one or two TV channels and they differ from area to area. The deadline is looming for public safety to vacate and for auctions to take place so it is critical that public safety make its congressional representatives aware that giving back the T-band spectrum would endanger life and property of both citizens and public-safety personnel. We need this bill to be passed quickly in the House and then re-introduced in the Senate for passage.

Another session included updates by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and reports from a number of committee members on ongoing tasks. The room, like the entire conference, was more populated than I have seen in many years both with committee members and those of us on the sidelines who follow public-safety activities. A highlight was when (Ret.) Chief Harlin McEwen came to sit and listen. The chair recognized Harlan and talked about the many years he headed up the committee (thirty-seven), after which Harlin received a big round of applause for his previous service to the committee.

Samsung Vendor Session

One of the two vendor sessions I attended was presented by Samsung. This session was designed to provide more insight into its Desktop Experience (DEX) solution for public safety and to invite attendees from the public-safety side to discuss their requirements. DEX is an ingenious way to replace a typical hardened in-vehicle laptop or tablet with a dumb terminal that includes a keyboard. A Samsung phone is first plugged into a cradle and then the phone screen is automatically displayed on the terminal screen in 1080p resolution (at the moment). Once the connection is made, the terminal provides full touch and other usual phone functions. 

Today, a hardwire interface is required for transferring touch and other gestures used on phones to the terminal screen. The cradle also charges the phone, and the display is available on both the phone and the terminal screen. I find the concept to be really interesting but I have some concerns. The first is that since the screen is a “dumb” screen controlled by the phone, it cannot be removed and used outside the vehicle by an incident commander as a fully-functional tablet. Next, it currently requires users to plug their phone into the cradle to be able to view and interact with the phone on the terminal screen. During an incident when a quick exit from the vehicle is necessary, in their hurry, users might forget to unplug and take their phone with them. 

Samsung wants to move toward a wireless version of the DEX system but existing wireless technology does not support all the DEX functions a cabled system currently supports. There are some expectations that wireless enhancements already in the pipeline will provide for these functions. However, the need for wireless to operate in conditions with multiple radios in use, LED lights, and other RF sources could make wireless a difficult choice. My final comment is that while I think the concept is good, I am not a fan of proprietary solutions on FirstNet. The Public Safety Alliance and later the FirstNet Authority have indicated that ONLY open-standard devices, services, and applications were to be permitted on the FirstNet network. 

Motorola Vendor Meeting

The second vendor meeting was held by Motorola but since much of the information was under non-disclosure, I cannot write about what was discussed, though I found the meeting useful. Motorola was showing various project roadmaps including additions and enhancements to existing products and paused after each subject to find out if attendees saw it as a benefit. It was a good session and it reinforced my understanding of a product I discuss below. Motorola representatives seemed interested in all attendee’s comments, both good and bad, and I enjoyed listening to both Motorola’s and user’s sides of the discussions. This session was well worth the time.

The Show Floor

IACP does not group exhibitors, so communications-related vendors were scattered from one end of the show floor to the other. Overall, FirstNet was the big topic of interest. Entering the Dell Computer exhibit, for example, there were signs pointing to hardened notebooks and laptops and the term “FirstNet-Ready” was in use everywhere. Panasonic, which led the hardened laptop evolution and was the first company to build wireless into its laptops, exhibited a large number of hardened products from laptops to tablets for the public-safety community. 

I favor tablets because I think they are tools that add value, especially to Incident Command staff. Some vendors are providing layered map products so an Incident Commander (IC) can see the incident area, bring in a layer to show incoming responders, another layer showing fire hydrants, yet another layer to see which intersections have been or need to be blocked by local law enforcement, and almost any other information you could imagine. Videos can reside along the side of the screen and when their icon is clicked, they come up to fill the screen to display aerial views of an incident, perhaps what a sniper sees through his/her scope, and much more. Some agencies are replacing their in-vehicle laptops with tablets that can be locked in place but easily removed and taken into the field, and some agencies are equipping vehicles with a separate tablet for IC use. The issue, of course, is that Incident Commanders change often during incidents. The first IC may be replaced by someone with a higher rank, this IC could be replaced by an even higher-ranking person, or the incident grows and the Incident Command structure, which is designed to expand as needed, can quickly change from a single IC to a staff of IC personnel. In all cases, tablets provide them with the visual real estate they need to better do their job.

LMR and LTE Handheld Integration

I saw three vendors with LMR handheld radios that have LTE or FirstNet-ready LTE onboard. The first is the final version of the Harris XL-200, a handheld I have been carrying for a while now. My current device has all four LMR bands (VHF, UHF, 700 MHz, 800 MHz) and supports analog, P25 conventional, and P25 trunked. This latest one contains a band 14 FirstNet-approved radio, but the rest of the bands are Verizon and not AT&T FirstNet. Harris’ goal all along has been to make the LTE portion of the radio a full AT&T FirstNet-capable device, but the company went much further than that. This new version has twenty-eight LTE bands so it is essentially an LTE device capable of being used in most countries.

The LTE module is also unique. It sports an antenna mounted on the back of the unit, essentially outside the case, and it works better than imbedded antennas. Just as important, the LTE unit is a module that fits directly under the belt clip. This module has been designed so as 5G comes to market, the Harris XL-200 can be retrofitted with a new module for both LTE and 5G. This will mean as 5G is made available to FirstNet customers, the XL-200 will not have to be replaced. Instead, a new module can be plugged into the back area to enable 5G systems as well.

The radio specifications show this is a serious LMR unit. The U.S. version covers all public-safety bands including the federal government spectrum and supports a VHF transmitter capable of 6 watts, UHF 5 watts, and 700/800 3 watts. LMR receiver sensitivity for 12 dB is -122 for VHF and -121 for the other three bands. The U.S. version supports LTE bands 2, 4, 5, 12, 13, 14, 17, 29, 30, and 66 (bands 29 and 30 are downlink-only and are provided if needed for carrier aggregation). Support is also provided for 3G bands 2 and 5. It is approved by FirstNet, AT&T, and Verizon but band 14 is only permitted for use by FirstNet customers, and it includes 2.4-GHz and 5-GHz WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0 with 128-bit encryption. Of the three vendors offering combination LMR/LTE handhelds that I talked with, this particular radio would be my preference (and no, Harris is not a client). 

Bendix King (BK)

This company’s radio products for both public safety and business are labeled “BK” or “King,” or “RCA” for lower-end products. The 9000 Series caught my attention at IACP because these radios include broadband (LTE) capabilities. As far as I can tell, the 9000s are not currently FirstNet-approved although they do include all four LMR bands and support analog, P25 conventional, P25 phase 1 and 2 trunked, and include WiFi and Bluetooth. One reason I decided to include BK in this column is that it offers single-band LMR plus LTE in addition to a four-band LMR plus LTE device. There is one for VHF, another for UHF, and a third for 700/800. These single-band LMR radios plus LTE are a lot less expensive than the four-band variety offered by BK, Harris, and Motorola (see below). I like the idea of a single-band plus LTE radio. BK has done its homework and hopefully it has submitted its radios to FirstNet for approval.

Motorola

Motorola’s entry into the LMR/LTE combined radio category was receiving a lot of attention in its booth at IACP. Until now, Motorola offered a LEX LTE handheld that could “talk” to and command an APX radio. You could, therefore, use the LEX as a Remote Speaker/Microphone (RSM) and as a FirstNet-approved LTE-only device. The newest member of the APX family is called the “APX NEXT” and it is an all-band (VHF, UHF, 700/800) APX radio with a large screen on one side and LTE built in, almost. 

The reality is that the LTE built-in is mostly for over-the-air programming and there are a very few limited functions. This is not a full-blown, FirstNet-approved LTE radio that can download and run applications but, I am told, it can be used for Push-To-Talk (PTT) over LTE if LMR fails. The caveat is that it can only run Motorola’s push-to-talk service, and while the LTE is based on Android, only Motorola applications are included. This is part of the “Smart Radio” concept, which means you can program it over the air but you need a special Motorola cloud-based system setup.

Some public-safety departments are not at all keen on making use of cloud systems even when using secure connections off the Internet because this would mean having to penetrate the city or county’s own firewall, and some IT folks are concerned cloud systems could become targets for hackers. Further, if the cloud goes down, your services, including your ability to program this radio, go away.

I like the size and shape of the unit and the screen appears to be indestructible. In the booth they were swinging a sledge hammer at one of the units and it continued to operate time after time with no screen damage, and the sledge hammer had been hitting the unit squarely on the screen itself. My hope is that Motorola won’t stop with this version of the APX NEXT but will realize that with both Harris and BK including true LTE radios in their LMR devices, it should go back and finish the APX Smart Radio by making it a true LMR/LTE handheld radio.

Also in the Motorola booth was a demo of “ViQi,” a way to use voice to run license checks and receive other forms of data without involving a dispatcher. The demo worked well and then I was asked to select a driver’s license. When I did so, the gentleman held the license in one hand and the microphone in the other. After the demo they asked me what I thought. My first comment was, “The guy doing the demo is now a dead cop!” I said this because he was using both hands to operate ViQi. I don’t know of a single public-safety professional who is willing to use two hands to operate a device while standing within a few feet of a suspect. Perhaps ViQi would work with one hand, but if so, they need to show it being operated with one hand.

I am frankly surprised Motorola came out with a teaser product for LTE functionality and not a fully LTE/FirstNet-capable device. My existing APX 8000 is a great radio and it works well, but I was hoping to see a new APX with full LTE capabilities. Perhaps by next year’s IACP in Orlando, or how about IWCE in the spring of 2000?

Winding Down

Next week I will be reporting on some of the other products that impressed me, including the new Harris XG and XL multi-band mobile radios, software products, remote microphones and speakers, and much more. IACP continues to deliver something for every segment of the law-enforcement community and the conference appears to be growing by the year.

I really like what Samsung is doing with its handhelds, tablets, its DEX system, and its (rumor has it) new push-to-talk services. However, it appears as though Samsung is trying to become a primary supplier to FirstNet based on proprietary products and services. DEX is one, and my understanding is that Samsung’s push-to-talk is chip-based, meaning it will also be a proprietary product. I am not pleased that the FirstNet Authority and FirstNet (Built with AT&T) seem to be okay with allowing proprietary devices and services on FirstNet. The basic concept of FirstNet is for a totally interoperable network that includes push-to-talk, applications, and devices. 

We are not there with PTT for sure, with four different flavors of PTT running over FirstNet, none of which are compatible with the others. At least one of them is capable of becoming compatible with the others from a technology perspective, but this vendor has been told by the others that they won’t grant access to anyone else to cooperate in their efforts. This is not what scores of us fought so hard for when we convinced Congress to pass a law to create FirstNet. This is not what the public-safety community wants nor is it what it deserves. FirstNet was created to address the lack of interoperable communications during 9/11, Katrina, Sandy, and more. 

The technologies to solve interoperability issues are out there. The hang-ups appear to be vendor-specific in nature and perhaps it is time for FirstNet and the FirstNet Authority to be heavier-handed about open-source applications, devices, and services. I continue to be told that once the 3GPP standard for “Mission-Critical” PTT and other things “Mission-Critical” is finished, integration and interoperability will simply happen. I don’t believe that. I don’t believe a group made up primarily of network representatives and vendors who do not have a clue about what LMR is, how it works, or why public safety needs are so different from the cellular world can solve our problems. AT&T’s FirstNet group understands, but it is not the driving force within the 3GPP, it is only one member. 

The need for open standards and the needs of public safety can and will be better served only from within the community that understands public-safety operations, communications, and what FirstNet brings to the party. Organizations such as the Public Safety Technology Association (PSTA), NPSTC, and the FirstNet Authority Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC) need to form an alliance and invite other key organizations I failed to mention here to join the cause. These will be the ones to bring full interoperability to all things FirstNet. I believe waiting for the 3GPP shoe to drop is leaving undone what needs to be done now!

FirstNet (Built with AT&T) continues to add subscribers and agencies. As mentioned, communications vendors at IACP were all touting “FirstNet-ready” and everyone stopped to see what they are bringing to public-safety communications and FirstNet. We have the interest and what we need now is more direction from FirstNet, the FirstNet Authority, and from within the public-safety community for how best to move toward the ultimate goal of 100-percent interoperability for all things public safety!

Until next week…
Andrew M. Seybold
©2019, Andrew Seybold, Inc.

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