It took a long time to establish FirstNet, will it take as long to close the Digital Divide?
In our history, there have been many times when it was apparent that something needed to be done to advance a cause, a technology, or perhaps to solve an ongoing problem. However, until something major happens to point out why the problem needs to be fixed, it remains unsolved.
Unfortunately, it took many disasters to awaken the public and Members of Congress to public safety’s need for a nationwide network to enable agencies from different cities, counties, or states to be summoned to an incident and, upon arrival, communicate with those already on the scene. My first article about the lack of interoperability was written in 1981, but the problems for public safety pre-date that by decades. While the need for such a network was well known to the public-safety community for decades, in 2012, the federal government created FirstNet, the only nationwide public-safety broadband network (NPSBN), and a contract to build the network was awarded in 2017.
The first major disaster happened 25 years ago when the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was bombed and there was a tragic loss of life. Public-safety agencies were summoned from many areas and state and federal agencies arrived in large numbers. The lack of communications between all these various agencies hampered rescue efforts and some turned to cell phones. However, they soon found that it was impossible to make a connection because so many citizens and reporters were already using their cell phones. After-action reports pointed to the lack of coordinated communications as having a major impact during the incident.
It was not until 2007 that it appeared things might be moving forward to provide pubic safety with what it needed in the way of communications. In 2001, we were faced with the 9/11 attacks on the United States and a huge communications failure was again blamed for a lack of emergency coordination and the loss of many first-responder and citizen’s lives. The press reported extensively on the shortcomings of emergency communications during this disaster, and it took the 9/11 Commission a number of years to point to the lack of coordinated communications as a major issue faced by first responders on that day.
Again, nothing much was done to improve public-safety communications. Multiple efforts were made within the public-safety community to address the issue but nothing concrete was taking hold at the federal level. 9/11 was followed a few years later by hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. These disasters demonstrated once again that there were major issues impeding coordination of communications for first responders and once again, after-action reports were critical of the lack of interoperable communications.
After all this, the public and Congress seemed ready to support changes to assist public safety. The public-safety community knew it needed to come together and began actively soliciting Congress, the FCC, and the Executive Branch for assistance in 2009. Still, it took until 2012 to pass a bill in both houses of Congress. This bill became the law that established FirstNet and earmarked some money from future auctions as a starter kit. It took this new organization until 2017 to issue a contract (to AT&T) to build and operate what is known as “FirstNet.” Today this network serves more than 1.3 million users and 12,000+ agencies with more joining every week. Having this network in place as the coronavirus took hold of our nation has enabled a much higher level of cooperation and communications among federal, state, and local agencies. Hospital personnel have come onboard and FirstNet (Built with AT&T) has done an excellent job of supporting the Navy hospital ships, new emergency hospitals set up by the military, and even drive-through testing sites.
FirstNet is an example of what can happen after major events push people into action. From the Oklahoma Bombing to today, it took 25 years of effort on the part of public safety to reach the point where FirstNet is a reality. 25 years!
Next Major Issue: The Digital Divide
Now FirstNet is up and running and public-safety communications are much improved during this nationwide pandemic. However, another communications issue has come to the forefront and that is the inability for school-age children in rural and poverty areas to study at home and for citizens and businesses to connect to the Internet. What is maddening about this lack of broadband and Internet access is that this too has been recognized for many years. When I was part of the Public Safety Alliance (PSA) working to pass FirstNet in Congress, I took on the task of reviewing a large number of Congressional Districts to determine how many people in a specific district did not have access to broadband or Internet. These reports were sent to the Representative or Senator of each of these districts with an explanation of how they could probably win more votes if they endorsed what was to become FirstNet and provide better Internet access to their district. Here is a link to a report focused on Oregon’s Second District.
From 2011 when these reports were created to today, much has been accomplished in providing rural broadband capabilities, but a lot more should have been done in this timeframe. Many people, including me, have been pushing the federal government to fix its sluggish and poorly designed system to bridge the “digital divide.” While we have known this to be a huge problem, multiple federal government agencies have been administering grants and loans to states and counties. Today there are more than fifteen different types of grants and loan programs from an assortment of agencies including the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the National Telecommunications and Information Agency (NTIA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and many more. While these agencies offer funds to build out broadband services, few provide ongoing funds for continued operation of the broadband networks.
There are also grants and loans from the NTIA that favor fiber to the home, which is a very expensive way to provide broadband in rural areas. The FCC decision that its new multi-billion-dollar fund will only be used for 5G wireless broadband in rural areas is misguided. The reality is that it will take more than fiber and 5G to solve the problem. Congress has attempted and failed several times to pass a bill to consolidate these disparate agencies with their different sets of guidelines and application processes into a combined agency or department to enable faster rollout of broadband, coordination between the federal government and states and counties, and ongoing funding to ensure these networks survive.
Pressure to Fix Now
Pressure to close the digital divide is coming from rural communities, counties, cities, school districts, farmers, medical personnel, and many more. However, we once again appear to be approaching solutions for narrowing the digital divide in a piecemeal fashion. On a federal level, there is a lot of money available but it is administered by different agencies for different types of broadband. Some grants favor fiber only, which is not cost efficient, and the FCC’s most recent grants provide $9 billion but only for systems built to 5G standards. What about all the other ways broadband can be delivered? Today there are many smaller cellular providers that are not ready for 5G but could be incented to increase their 4G footprints. And there is FirstNet, which is required by law to cover rural America and has spectrum that can be used by citizens on a secondary basis when this spectrum is not needed by public safety.
Organizations such as the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) are made up of small but capable broadband to rural area companies, utility co-ops or not-for-profit power companies that need broadband for their own uses and have rights-of-way available as well as trucks and personnel in rural areas that would like to be able to add broadband and Internet services to their power offerings. In short, there are many, many ways to deliver broadband and Internet to rural areas—fiber, microwave, commercial broadband, other wireless services, and combinations of all the above.
There should be a concerted effort to form a rural broadband consortium that includes all stakeholders. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for rural broadband. It makes no sense, for example, to run fiber twenty miles out to a farm when what farmers really want is broadband at home that also covers all of their fields. They want to be able to use all the technologies farmers have been using for years at a faster and more efficient level.
The FCC recently claimed all was well with broadband, which we know is not the reality of the situation. The FCC also recently acknowledged that its broadband coverage maps are incomplete or out of date. Many states have once again begun assembling their own maps in order to determine where they stand today and what they need to do to cover their rural areas. Some seem to believe that as soon as all the little Low Earth Orbiting (LEO) satellites are whizzing around, the entire world will be covered with broadband. I am a doubter for several reasons. Is there an economic model that will support the extremely high costs of launching these satellites, building and maintaining ground stations, installing DirectTV or Dish TV-size antennas on homes and businesses to be able to receive coverage indoors, and for upkeep of these systems? How much will the service cost those living in rural America who are struggling to make ends meet?
The Bottom Line
We can, once and for all, attack the digital divide in a coherent and logical fashion by combining available funding sources and perhaps adding more funds, or we can continue to complain about the lack of broadband services and limp along until yet another disaster occurs and shows us we did not fix the problem last time but must fix it before next time. We do not lack technology and technology vendors are willing to help solve the problem. We do not lack users whose lives would be enriched and who could probably increase their net worth by having solid access to broadband and the Internet. And there is no lack of people whose lives would be enhanced and school-age children would do better in school with Internet available in their homes as well as at school. I do not believe we can be successful with so many people working on solving this problem in such disjointed ways.
I hope it does not take as long to close the digital divide as it did for FirstNet to become a reality. We are facing a nationwide crisis and we need to approach the digital divide as a nationwide issue that can and must be overcome now. We have many different technologies and many vendors and technology users are willing to be a part of the solution. What we don’t yet have is a group of people like those who dedicated four or more years of their lives while still working at their day jobs to keep the need for interoperable public-safety communications in front of those with the power to solve the problem.
Push-To-Talk (PTT) services over FirstNet and other LTE systems is in the news these days. FirstNet launched its FirstNet PTT based on a push-to-talk technology developed to meet 3GPP standards for what 3GPP calls “Mission Critical Push-To-Talk” (MCPTT). Since this is not truly mission-critical, I prefer to call it more appropriately “Public-Safety Grade PTT” (PSGPTT). While full MCPTT-compliant PTT services are being announced and rolled out, other approved FirstNet PTT vendors are making news of their own. This past week, press releases were issued by ESChat, an over-the-top PTT application vendor that has been approved for FirstNet and permits PTT across LTE networks as well.
The first press release announced that the Department of Justice (DOJ) has awarded ESChat a multi-year Task Order for broadband push-to-talk services. The Task Order, which includes a base one-year term and four option years, was issued via ESChat’s General Services Administration (GSA) contract. According to ESChat, the award will grow the number of users from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which has been using ESChat since 2012. This new contract also opens the door for ESChat to be used by eight other executive departments of the U.S. Government.
The second press release announced a formal contract between ESChat and Canadian cellular broadband provider TELUS. ESChat and TELUS have been working together since 2018 and TELUS had a soft launch of ESChat PTT in 2019. TELUS is now moving toward a full-scale launch after which the ESChat PTT system will be available to all TELUS customers. While this announcement does not directly impact the U.S. PTT market, it does provide a bridge between ESChat customers in the United States and TELUS customers in Canada.
While push-to-talk over broadband is offered by a number of vendors, Ericsson and Samsung claim they meet the 3GPP MCPTT specifications and a number of others are providing either on-network PTT or over-the-top PTT. Yet as far as I can determine, none of these are interoperable with any of the others, and while there are a number of ways to provide broadband PTT and Land Mobile Radio (LMR) interconnectivity, some are still far too expensive to implement and some are missing or lacking the ability to share location and user ID between broadband and LMR users. This continues to be a critical communications area that must be resolved so any user on FirstNet can have a PTT conversation with any other user on FirstNet. Further, over-the-top applications are specifically designed to provide other broadband network-to-FirstNet PTT interoperability. Work continues in an effort to solve all these issues and I, for one, look forward to the day when the PTT application being used does not limit who can communicate over FirstNet, other broadband networks, and local LMR systems.
In closing, it cannot be said enough. Thanks to all who handle calls in Emergency Communications Centers (ECC) and send information out to assist first responders, doctors, nurses, and all those who are working every day so the rest of us can follow the guidelines issued by our states and local areas. These people continue to put themselves in danger to protect the rest of us. I enjoy seeing expressions of love for these folks every day via Twitter, on Facebook, and in video clips shown almost every day of first responders thanking nurses and doctors in the hospitals. These demonstrate how when we are threatened as a nation, we all pull together to defeat whatever the threat happens to be.
Until next week…
Andrew M. Seybold
©2020, Andrew Seybold, Inc.