Regular Public Safety Advocate followers are probably familiar with an expression I picked up years ago that remains true today: “Paper does not refuse ink.” It is also true that when the ink hits the paper and the finished product is littered with so-called “facts,” fact-checking the document will reveal any distortions intended to convince others that the conclusions of the document are accurate. I recently saw a copy of a T-Mobile Ex Parte filing with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) dated March 19, 2020, which is a perfect example of such a document.
T-Mobile sent this filing to the FCC in an effort to continue to stir things up and push for a ruling from the FCC regarding PS docket No 19-254, Petition filed by the Boulder Regional Emergency Telephone Service Authority (BRETSA). T-Mobile documented the results of a meeting with FCC personnel for the stated purpose of asking the FCC for a declaratory rule stating that interoperability between broadband networks is a fundamental responsibility of the First-Responder Network Authority. Its point was to ask the FCC to require that FirstNet enter into bilateral roaming agreement(s) with commercial carriers regardless of an agency’s primary carrier.
I was present and participated in many of the events and statements that have been twisted in this document. Starting in 2009, I was part of the Public Safety Alliance (PSA) and then became a communications advisor to both the National Sheriffs Association (NSA) and the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP). In 2010, I was appointed a member of the FCC’s Public Safety Advisory Council (PSAC) by the NSA. I attended all FCC PSAC meetings and I can attest to the fact that not once during these meetings or preparation of the final report did this organization ever discuss multiple broadband networks, it was always one network. During the time I worked with the PSA and Congress on what the bill would include, I prepared many dozens of filings with the FCC refuting filings submitted by T-Mobile, Sprint, and others including some of the FCC’s own staff.
Fact-Checking the Ex Parte Filing
Let’s start with what transpired while we were in the process of persuading Congress to authorize the use of an additional 10 MHz of 700-MHz spectrum, called the D Block. The object was to end up with a 20-MHz segment of 700-MHz broadband spectrum for a single Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN) rather than the 10 MHz already assigned to the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST). The PSA and the PSST reviewed available options in deciding how the network should be built out on a nationwide basis. The options discussed included a network of networks, a system where each state or region might have its own network that would be joined together with all the others to provide a nationwide communications system. This idea was scrapped early on for a number of reasons, the most significant of which was that keeping all the networks up-to-date with the same revision of software and the need to be able to quickly resolve problems one network or vendor might blame on another to the detriment of the public-safety community.
Next was the idea that the United States would be divided into segments and each of the existing nationwide broadband vendors would build out a portion of the overall network. This was scrapped for the same reasons as the “network of networks.” For too many years, the public-safety community has had multiple Land Mobile Radio (LMR), console, and device vendors and time after time, since there was no single point of contact to resolve network issues, it took longer to correct problems because vendors blamed each other. Public safety cannot afford such delays during incidents.
The final decision was to have one network, built and managed by a single private partner and overseen by a quasi-federal government agency. This plan would provide for a single point of contact for resolving operational and technical issues. Our supporters in Congress agreed to our logic and as the bills moved through Congress there were no issues with the choice. I should mention that while we were working with Congress, both T-Mobile and Sprint were on the other side of the issue, trying to convince Congress and the FCC to allocate the 10 MHz of proposed D-Block spectrum for commercial use and setting up the website “Connect Public Safety Now.” Once the FirstNet bill passed and The FirstNet Authority went out to bid, T-Mobile, Sprint, and Verizon did not respond for various reasons. However, it now seems that the success of FirstNet has brought them back out of the woodwork and it appears to me that one or more of these companies helped convince BRETSA to petition the FCC.
One statement in the ex parte filing is that Congress mandated that the Nationwide Public-Safety Broadband Network will be built to “open, non-proprietary” standards. (Notice NPSBN is not plural; it is singular, which is indicative of the mindset of Congress as it worked through this bill). Once again, “network” is singular in this part of the law. Today, the FirstNet network is in compliance with this since it is based on 3GPP standards for LTE wireless networks and FirstNet users can freely call, text, and share data with non-FirstNet users and know their data will receive priority and preemption.
One issue not mentioned or discussed in the T-Mobile filing is that while LTE is a standard created by the 3GPP, it has undergone numerous revisions. This brings up two issues: First, are all networks in the United States using the same 3GPP revision? and second, do all networks offer the same features? Every 3GPP LTE release includes new features and functions and each network operator is free to choose which if any to include in its LTE software. With this variable, it is and will continue to be difficult to ensure every network is 100%-compatible with FirstNet or that every network upgrades to the next release at the same time.
LTE Broadband Networks
The ex parte filing then discusses formation of a technical advisory board under the auspices of the FCC. According to T-Mobile, the purpose of the Public Safety Advisory working group was to ensure true interoperability was achieved nationwide. Appointed to the advisory board by the National Sheriffs Association (NSA), I attended every session and worked on a number of its documents. The discussions and final report from the advisory council dealt with only one network: FirstNet. To the best of my recollections, there were no discussions about inter- or intra-operability with any other network. This council was charged with ensuring full interoperability using the FirstNet network, not FirstNet and other networks.
During our work with Congress, in our FCC filings, and during the term of the FCC advisory council there were, to the best of my recollections, no discussions about broadband NETWORKS, only one nationwide broadband network as created by Congress and signed into law. I will once again point out that T-Mobile and Sprint were both lobbying against our efforts before Congress passed the bill and FirstNet was signed into law. Once signed into law, T-Mobile, Sprint, and even Verizon wireless were absent from any discussions and none of them responded to the FirstNet Authority’s request for proposal.
Push-to-Talk Cross Network
There are two interesting issues surrounding Push-To-Talk (PTT) service across networks. Shortly after the Boulder Regional Emergency Telephone Service Authority (BRETSA) filed its petition with the FCC for PTT interoperability with FirstNet, agencies in Boulder signed a contract with ESChat, which provides a FirstNet-approved over-the-top PTT application. ESChat provides full cross-network push-to-talk service between any broadband network and FirstNet. (T-Mobile also has a PTT contract with ESChat.) Any agency responding to a jurisdiction already using ESChat for PTT can be easily and quickly added to ESChat for the duration of the incident, even it is not an ESChat customer.
Other cross-network issues will not be resolved by what BRETSA and T-Mobile have proposed because there is no such thing as a common set of applications even on FirstNet. At this point, public-safety agencies use the applications they prefer for data sessions, video, and still pictures so there is no reason to seek cross network-capabilities beyond push-to-talk.
Intra- versus Inter-Operability
T-Mobile uses the term “interoperability” in the ex parte. In the past, public-safety interoperability meant minimizing solutions and the resultant loss in functionality was considered a trade-off for enabling interoperability between agencies. Minimization can take the form of reductions in capacity, rich feature sets, or both, but for public-safety agencies there was always a cost associated with interoperability within the network as compared to agencies’ current network-to-network intra-operability.
FirstNet, being a single nationwide broadband network, promotes nationwide interoperability for first responders across agencies without having to minimize feature sets and capabilities to achieve interoperability. It offers high-functioning services that are inherently inoperable to its users. Patching multiple networks together to meet the needs of commercial carriers that do not have the same obligations and commitments to public safety as FirstNet does will result in the incompatibility issues mentioned above and a minimization of capabilities and services first responders need. A single network that meets all of public-safety’s needs for both inter- and intra-operability with the same level of quality features can provide a more intimate solution for first responders with nationwide seamless interoperability than a patchwork of networks could ever provide.
T-Mobile Offering 5G but Not LTE?
One thing that puzzles me about the ex parte is that while T-Mobile seems to be talking about 4G or LTE, its recent thrust to the public-safety community is to move public safety to its 600-MHz 5G network. This does not seem logical at the moment as 5G is still in its infancy, and I have not heard any discussions about integrating 5G and 4G into a common network. Perhaps that will come with time, yet T-Mobile’s entire focus appears to be on its 5G roll-out. Public safety worked long and hard with Congress, the FCC, and the Executive Branch of the Federal Government to obtain spectrum for a single nationwide broadband network to augment its land mobile radio systems because existing LMR systems did not permit first responders to communicate with other agencies when they traveled from one jurisdiction to another. Adding more disparate networks, diverse versions of features and functions in different LTE networks, and 5G as well will only result in the same types of communications issues.
Several Important Points
The U.S. Congress and the administration at the time supported public safety in creating the FirstNet nationwide public-safety network to ensure a new level of nationwide interoperability not achievable with LMR. Further, according to one filing in this matter, “The 2012 Act neither mandates nor contemplates any requirement for the NPSBN to be interoperable with (or that the NPSBN core connect to) separate commercial or other third-party networks including, for example, land mobile radio (LMR) systems and commercial radio service (CMRS) providers.”
This last point is very important. When the law was enacted in 2012, cybersecurity was not an issue to be dealt with to any degree. However, by the time The FirstNet Authority RFP was released, there was an emphasis on cybersecurity issues concerning FirstNet, the Internet, and other types of connectivity. Connecting the public-safety network core to any other network or network core would reduce FirstNet’s ability to guarantee the latest cybersecurity measures are in place and are constantly being updated as new threats emerge.
LTE is still a work in progress as the 3GPP standards body continues to develop and release new LTE “builds” with improved or new features and functions. LTE networks in the United States and around the world don’t simply upgrade their current systems for each release, they review revised portions of the standard and decide which improved or new features and functions to include in their networks. This variable raises two issues. The first is how networks can continue to interact when they offer different features and functions, and the second is when FirstNet upgrades to a new release, what guarantees are there that the other networks will do the same, at the same time, to maintain network compatibility?
It is clear that permitting multiple networks to access FirstNet could create major interoperability issues. For all these reasons, I believe it is best to continue as the U.S. Congress, the Administration, and most importantly, the public-safety community want: A single, nationwide public-safety broadband network. Push-to-talk across networks is already available, push-to-video will be next, and there will be other “push-to” applications. As these roll out, the need for connecting disparate networks will no longer exist.
From the beginning, T-Mobile led the charge to convince Congress and the FCC to continue with plans to allocate the D Block 10 MHz of radio spectrum for commercial Use. T-Mobile, working with Sprint and others, developed a website to reinforce its case and filed documents with the FCC explaining that if the D Block was not auctioned, the company would essentially be shut out of the 700-MHz band. The 700-MHz band had already been auctioned but T-Mobile either did not bid or did not bid enough to win any spectrum. However, T-Mobile did purchase some 700-MHz spectrum in 2016 from an existing spectrum holder, paying almost double what it went for at auction.
After The FirstNet Authority was formed and the RFP was released, T-Mobile, Sprint, and Verizon disappeared into the woodwork. That is until FirstNet had 100% buy-in by the states and territories, and after it began adding public-safety agencies to the network. When the commercial network operators saw FirstNet’s success, they began looking for how they might cash in. So now, after years of trying to undermine the public-safety community, these folks have suddenly become such vocal proponents.
The networks that ignored FirstNet or claimed they did not need the spectrum are now worrying about losing several million customers. Is this about revenue from a few million subscribers to the detriment of the public-safety community, is it about bragging rights that they too have public-safety users on their networks, or is there a more selfish reason? FirstNet is not a commercial network and its spectrum is always available to public safety. AT&T won the twenty-five-year contract to build, expand, and operate the network, returning some of the money it collects from the first-responder community to The FirstNet Authority to invest back into the network. Why, after $billions have been spent to make FirstNet a true nationwide broadband network as envisioned by the public-safety community and Congress, are they raising their hands and saying, “Me too, we can do this.” My question is if you can do it now, why couldn’t you do it in 2012 thru 2017 when The FirstNet Authority was setting the guidelines for what is now the only Nationwide Pubic Safety Broadband Network in the United States?
Happy Third Birthday (2 years since the network was turned on ) to FirstNet (Built with AT&T)! The FirstNet Authority awarded a twenty-five-year contract to AT&T and the first five years were critical years for building out the network. Amazing progress has been made over the past three years. When AT&T was awarded the contract, it immediately stated that in addition to adding Band 14, it would be upgrading public-safety customers and giving them full priority and preemption on all its LTE spectrum. AT&T is far ahead of meeting the five-year build requirements, reporting recently that 75% of the Band 14 build-out had been completed, more than 11,000 public-safety agencies had been amassed, more than 1.2 million users have signed up, and AT&T has completed additional milestones.
There was hope within the public-safety community that the $2 Trillion relief bill to assist those out of work and to help the economy would perhaps include the repeal the T-band giveback and Next-Generation 9-1-1 (NG911) funding bills already in Congress. Neither of these were included but, hopefully, they can be added to other bills, passed as a package, or passed individually very soon. The COVID-19 virus may prove to be a catalyst to prompt faster action on the bills in both Houses. Public-safety personnel in the field are being exposed to the virus every day, but 9-1-1 dispatchers are doing their best to collect additional information from patients who call in to ascertain if the virus may be a factor so responding EMS, fire, and police can take appropriate precautions. This is a time when more and better information coming into the ECCs and being sent out to the field will help save lives of citizens and our first responders.
Our nation is coming together in many ways. The few times I have ventured out, I have seen some activity in Phoenix that has been suggested on Twitter, which is with this light traffic, how about repaving roads and fixing potholes? Many people across the nation are donating food, masks, and other equipment for first responders and hospital staff, truckers continue to move needed supplies across the country, and neighbors are shopping for elderly people who are afraid to or cannot venture out. While it takes a major event such as this for all of us to come together, I hope we will remember this sense of community when the crisis has passed.
From the time they are dispatched to the time they arrive at the hospital, it is essential for our first responders to be able to communicate with their Emergency Communications Center (ECC), other units, and hospitals that will receive their patients. As communications professionals, it is our job to make sure all our first responders have the communications capabilities they need, when and where they need them. While LMR systems continue to play an important role, FirstNet (Built with AT&T) is meeting the challenge of providing interoperable nationwide public-safety communications regardless of where personnel and units are or where they are being sent.
Andrew M. Seybold
©2020, Andrew Seybold, Inc.