Since the build-out of the FirstNet network began, many federal, state, and local public-safety agencies have become part of the growing number of entities using this Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN).
According to the latest FirstNet (Built with AT&T) report, 16,000+ agencies are using the network and more are joining every month. During the last eighteen months, there were concerns that broadband networks might experience some difficulties keeping up with demand due to Covid-19 and so many people working and studying from home. More and more agencies signed up with FirstNet for interoperability between agencies and to benefit from the increased capabilities provided by AT&T’s rapid build-out of public safety’s 20 MHz of 700-MHz spectrum and access to all of AT&T’s LTE spectrum.
While this 20 MHz of spectrum is available to AT&T’s customers when it is not being used by public safety, it is the only broadband spectrum completely dedicated to public safety use—when public safety needs it, public safety has exclusive access.
The law that created FirstNet allows states and territories to choose whether to sign on with FirstNet or build their own network that would meet FirstNet’s (opt-in/out) interoperability standards. All fifty states and all U.S. territories chose to join FirstNet. However, nothing in the law required individual public-safety entities to sign on. Each agency could decide if it wanted to be part of FirstNet. Some agencies decided not to join because they did not believe FirstNet’s coverage was as good as that of another broadband provider or for a variety of other reasons.
Today, AT&T is well ahead of The FirstNet Authority’s build-out requirements for Band-14. Perceived differences in today’s broadband coverage are not real differences since FirstNet (Built with AT&T) provides so much more coverage to more of the United States. As it nears the end of the first five years of the 25-year contract, AT&T is well ahead of schedule.
Advantages of FirstNet
The advantages of joining FirstNet begin with oversight by The FirstNet Authority, which is an independent agency reporting to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). The FirstNet Authority has a well-rounded board of directors, executives, and a staff who are dedicated to first responders. Many of its employees are public-safety personnel, either retired or hired directly from the public-safety community. The Authority’s Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC) is also made up of professionals who understand the needs and requirements of the-public safety community.
FirstNet (Built with AT&T) is the physical network being built and operated by AT&T. Here again, many AT&T FirstNet employees have come directly from the public-safety community.
Another significant advantage is the availability of 20 MHz of 700-MHz spectrum, often referred to as the D-Block or Band 14, which is licensed to The FirstNet Authority and has been made available to AT&T. Unlike any other broadband spectrum, Band-14 is licensed under FCC part 90 spectrum rules for other public-safety spectrum use as opposed to having to adhere to cellular rules and regulations.
When AT&T was awarded the FirstNet contract, it graciously made all its existing LTE spectrum available to the public-safety community with full preemption and priority. As mentioned, Band-14 can be shared with existing AT&T users when not being used by public safety. However, in times of need, it is cleared of all non-public-safety users, thus complete priority access to a nationwide swath of broadband spectrum is always available to public safety.
This public-safety spectrum offers another unique advantage for FirstNet users—it is currently the only broadband spectrum where high-power mobile devices are allowed to operate. The difference in power is significant (1.25 watts versus 0.25 watts). This means data and video can be sent from a mobile unit back to the network at much higher data rates even from what was the edge of the Band-14 cell site. Drive tests have proven that high-power devices increase the coverage of Band-14 cell sites by as much as 60% to 80%. And while high-power devices are mobile today, if installed in a vehicle and connected to a FirstNet-certified router that offers a Wi-Fi bubble around the vehicle, the high-power device will extend the range of any handheld within range of the vehicle’s Wi-Fi access point. This makes a tremendous difference in coverage for first responders using Band-14.
FirstNet (Built with AT&T) also maintains a large number of deployable cell sites that can be positioned for major events, incidents where additional coverage is needed, or to replace cell sites damaged during fires, tornadoes, or hurricanes. While most broadband agencies maintain fleets of deployables, FirstNet deployables operate primarily on Band-14 with priority access for public safety.
FirstNet recently contracted with a supplier of smaller, more portable deployable cell sites. These can be towed by a vehicle to where they are needed and set up as emergency Band-14 sites. There are several ways to incorporate them into the FirstNet network including satellite backhaul. These smaller deployables are designed and priced so agencies can purchase them and use them whenever they are needed.
From the beginning, one of our biggest concerns was how many user devices would include Band-14. The cellular industry was accustomed to building devices by the millions to serve broadband customers, so the number of Band-14 first responders did not seem particularly attractive to them. However, The FirstNet Authority and FirstNet (Built with AT&T) worked with vendors and now there are many certified handheld tablets and laptops that include public-safety Band-14. Several vendors have been building hardened devices for FirstNet deployment and Sonim is perhaps the best known. A number of ancillary equipment such as routers and Internet of Things (IoT) devices have also made their way into the market. Today it is possible for an agency to find the devices they prefer that include access to Band-14.
Land mobile radio companies including Motorola and L3Harris are building dual-purpose devices for public safety that include one or more public-safety LMR portion of spectrum in addition to FirstNet broadband. I believe this trend will continue and expect to see more products in the market and at upcoming conventions.
As a result of working with the software community and first responders, FirstNet has put together a large library of public-safety-specific applications. While many agencies have favorite applications, it is hoped that over time, FirstNet-certified applications will contribute toward establishing common platforms for video and data services.
Because the FirstNet network belongs to the public-safety community, both The FirstNet Authority and FirstNet (Built with AT&T) are listening to public-safety personnel to learn how they are using the network and how they would like to be able to use it in the future. FirstNet’s Public Safety Advisory Committee receives regular input from NPSTC, APCO, and other public-safety organizations to better understand what remains to be done.
I failed to mention earlier that The FirstNet Authority maintains its own technology group headed by The FirstNet Authority’s chief technology officer. This group is based in Boulder, Colorado, as is the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) public-safety communications research group. The NIST group works in conjunction with The FirstNet Authority’s technology group on future enhancements for first responders.
There are advantages and differences when using FirstNet. FirstNet was conceived of by the public-safety community, which worked diligently over many years to convince the federal government that the network was needed and spectrum had to be allocated for it. FirstNet, The Authority, and AT&T remain dedicated to ensuring that the first-responder community has the network it wants and needs.
If your agency has not yet joined FirstNet, perhaps it is time to take another look at the advantages of becoming part of the FirstNet family. Many exciting things lie ahead for FirstNet including 5G with full priority and preemption on spectrum FirstNet users can access. Agencies should look into how many near-by departments have moved to FirstNet and why. I am reminded of when Motorola decided late to enter the citizens band radio business. Its ads said, “If you want to know what kind of citizens band radio to buy, look inside a police car.” Well, if you want to learn why you should consider joining FirstNet, ask other agencies around you that have.
As I have said before, my focus is FirstNet, both the network and the management that charts its course, and nothing else. However, I would like to point out that while we were all working in Washington, DC, two broadband networks that have since merged opposed what we were trying to do while the two remaining networks were supportive. One of these two networks decided it was no longer interested and did not respond to the RFP, stating it did not need the spectrum. However, after seeing how successful FirstNet is, it is once again interested in public-safety communications.
Agencies that have joined FirstNet have done so because they recognized the advantages of a network dedicated to the public-safety community.
I believe AT&T will fulfill the requirements for the first five-year portion of the 25-year contract early but it won’t stop there saying, “we did our part and the network is done.” I believe AT&T is in for the long haul. A&T’s FirstNet management understands the public-safety community and is dedicated to providing the best possible network.
I look forward to going to IWCE in September. I always enjoy this conference and the people involved with it. I will be speaking on at least one panel and probably more, and even though my vision is limited, I plan to spend time on the exhibit floor talking with vendors about what is new to help the public-safety community move forward.
Until next week…
Andrew M. Seybold
©2021, Andrew Seybold, Inc.