I have to admit that from year to year I have been overly optimistic about the status of various technologies needed by public safety. Upon learning where they rank, I often wonder if those who prioritize development of features and functions communicate with first responders in the field and public safety. With improved interaction between vendors and public safety, priority and implementation schedules would be significantly different and more in line with public safety’s needs than they appear to be today.
Nationwide Fully Interoperable Push-To-Talk
As Advocate readers know, I believe it is of utmost importance for Push-To-Talk (PTT) to be available in the field as soon as possible. Over the past year, I have outlined several ways in which the process could be completed more quickly. Yet it appears that many people are still waiting “patiently” for the 3GPP standard for “Mission-Critical Push-To-Talk” (MCPTT) so PTT can be fully rolled out and interfaced with existing Land Mobile Radio (LMR) systems. From reports I receive, it appears that the 3GPP standard and the elements that need to be available nationwide will not be available until one year or more. When the standard is ready, it will be capable of being linked to every type of LMR system including analog P25 conventional, P25 trunked, simulcast, and Digital Mobile Radio (DMR) in some areas.
As I have reported in the past, the installed base of PTT users over FirstNet (Built with AT&T) continues to expand. Most federal agencies have already chosen their PTT and LMR interface technologies and have been up and running for a while. In most cases, when state and local agencies decide they want PTT over FirstNet, they already have other vendors’ PTT and LMR interface technologies.
Meanwhile, progress toward a 3GPP push-to-talk system that meets all the requirements of the 3GPP standard is limping along slowly and does not sufficiently address off-network, or simplex, communications. FirstNet and other broadband operators are in a similar position. They do not have an ample number of devices capable of the technology nor have they developed ways to integrate them with LMR systems. Once these obstacles are overcome, someone will have to figure out how to convince present PTT users that they need to discard their existing PTT systems and move over to the 3GPP standard.
Motorola and a few other companies believe the secret sauce for nationwide PTT compatibility and interoperability is a cloud-based solution under the direction of a single vendor but open to other participating vendors. I don’t believe for a minute that this is the right way to proceed and I am leery of how the other certified PTT vendors will be treated. For example, will they be charged a premium for the service?
Some vendors believe LMR will be going away soon, but somewhere in the back of my mind I suspect they are wrong. I have written several times about what I see as a huge gap between public safety, elected officials, and vendors when it comes to how long LMR will be around and how LMR will be interfaced with broadband PTT. I trust this feeling is not the reason nationwide PTT with full interoperability is advancing so slowly. As with most large companies, turning out new wireless communications products, features, and functions can be excruciatingly painful.
Even so, everyone I talked with from public safety agrees that nationwide PTT service should have been the first to have been turned on over the FirstNet network.
Because this has not happened, we now have multiple certified PTT products from a variety of vendors, many of which are willing to collaborate with other vendors to develop broadband and LMR interoperability solutions that can be tested, proven, and put into the field within a few months.
Products That Have Been Announced
Several products announced in 2022 with great fanfare have not yet become available to public safety. One example is “multicast,” which is also of great importance to public safety. Multicast is described as the ability to transmit information to multiple devices simultaneously, thus cutting down the time it takes to bring people in the field up to speed on an incident.
Other products announced during this time period. In each case, someone or some group had to decide where each product would show up on the delivery timetable and map. Many of these new products and features would be welcomed by public safety. It was discouraging that for many years wireless communications vendors announced products and even showed beta models promising to deliver “Real Soon Now” (RSN). As it turned out, many were delivered much later than promised, and many did not live up to vendors’ promises.
Public safety had to deal with promised products that were either very late to market, did not meet specifications that were promised or, in some cases, the product was never built.
Vendors should pay attention to this piece of history if they expect to be successful. Of all the markets served by wireless, the public safety market has been burned most often. As a result, public safety is also the most skeptical. Products that are announced too early and hyped too often are frequently followed by disappointment and doubt. No one building devices for use in the field should announce them before they have been beta tested in the field to show they are ready to be used before they are put on the market.
The comments above are not intended to take away from FirstNet (Built with AT&T) or the FirstNet Authority. The network is still on schedule, and there are more agencies and users on it than had been predicted for this date. Those using FirstNet on a daily basis are pleased with the results, coverage, and their ability to receive digital information in the field.
With FirstNet, public safety has better communications than ever before. FirstNet’s primary purpose was to solve the problem of one agency’s personnel not being able to communicate directly with another agency’s personnel during multi-agency incidents.
In fact, the FirstNet network is a nationwide broadband network designed and built for the public safety community. It covers as much of the United States as is possible today, and as it rolls out 5G and perhaps relationships with satellite providers, the fringe areas that are not covered today could end up being part of the system. Another important project that is being addressed by a combination of AT&T and the Smart Building Coalition (SBC) is to equip and make as many facilities as possible safer for inbuilding public safety use.
For the past few years, public safety and other groups have wanted to work with Congress, the Executive Branch, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Most of the federal communications community understand the importance of upgrading existing 9-1-1 services to handle digital information that can be carried over FirstNet. In fact, several times it has looked like Next-Generation 9-1-1 (NG911) would be approved within other bills. This has not happened yet, but people who are working tirelessly on this issue tell us legislative approval and funding have basically been agreed-upon.
I have said that NG911 is of vital importance and can be viewed as a formal entry into the public safety system, the missing link, or new technologies for better paths from reporting parties to Emergency Communications Centers (ECCs) and back. Once the information has been received by the ECC or Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP), and vetted, it can be sent out to responding units over the FirstNet broadband network, which was designed specifically to carry all types of digital traffic in the field.
Public Safety Communications
Public safety communications are better now than ever before due to the addition of the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN, FirstNet). Even so, those in the field need more tools sooner rather than later. Among these, nationwide PTT with full interoperability with LMR systems is the most important priority to be addressed. NG911 is the next most important segment of this communications network. Hopefully, we are on track to accomplish both of these.
The way new products and services are designed, built, and delivered should be turned one hundred and eighty degrees upside down. Instead of smart engineers or marketing types deciding what new technology can be devised and what new whizbang features and functions can be incorporated, it should be the other way around. They should find out what public safety needs today to help improve its communications systems. To public safety professionals, communications devices and services are tools like axes, hoses, Mace, or whatever. First responders don’t want to be communications engineers, they want to be able to communicate when and where they need to as much of the time as is humanly possible with today’s and tomorrow’s technologies.
Some will say that when I talk with public safety people on the West Coast, in the Midwest, or on the East Coast they express different needs. This should not be a surprise to anyone since there are a variety of incident types of that vary from area to area. Many years ago, when we were working with corporations to help them understand the advantages of mobile data communications, talked with executives and field personnel, being careful to talk to some long-term employees and some who were relatively new to the company.
This was confusing to us since we were asking questions across the United States and the priorities and needs appeared to be vastly different. However, if the actual device, feature, or function was stripped away, what was left was a common denominator across multiple corporations. We found that our vendor clients that built products and services based on a common denominator were more successful than their competitors. As diverse as the responses will be, listening to customers, will reveal the specifics and some commonality will come through. If they are to be successful, vendors should spend their time developing products based on the similarities.
Priorities come from the customer base, not the vendor community.
One final thought on beta testing is that when we were working with businesses on a product that needed to be beta tested in the field, we made sure it was given to some executives, some long-term employees, and some newbies. However, if no one followed up and tracked results, vendors would not learn about the product, its usefulness, and any improvements that might be recommended.
It will be interesting to see what the priorities are in 2023, who establishes the priorities, and whose job it is to make sure products and services at the top the priority list make it to the public safety toolbox as quickly as possible.
All is not lost with so many very talented people working on these issues and more. Organizations such as the Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR) division of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) are working on future issues that will take even longer. However, today’s focus is on what is most needed and how to provide it in a timely fashion.
I plan to make the yearly IWCE conference that will be held in March in Las Vegas again. I have not been able to travel as much as I used to and I miss attending more of the conferences. Fortunately, a number of people who attend the various events try to keep me up-to-date and up-to-speed, which I really appreciate. I am, therefore, really looking forward to attending IWCE in March. If you haven’t made reservations or have not yet decided if you’re going, I suggest you make your reservations as soon as possible. I hope to see many of you there. Please come over to me and say “hello.”
Until next week …
Andrew M Seybold, Senior
© 2023, Andrew Seybold, Inc.