Public Safety Advocate: Joining FirstNet

For the last year I have been receiving enquiries from readers and others about what is required to join FirstNet (Built with AT&T) and why an agency should join this network when it already has a contract with another broadband network. This is a fair question, especially when another network claims to be as good as FirstNet.

Let’s look at the reasons to join FirstNet. At the top of the list is the purpose for which the network was envisioned and then became the law of the land: to provide a nationwide broadband network dedicated solely to public safety agencies and personnel. From its inception, FirstNet was not intended to replace Land Mobile Radio (LMR) systems now or well into the future. It was designed to provide interoperability between agencies with different LMR systems and resolve the issues encountered when coordinating with other agencies on different portions of the LMR spectrum. Think of FirstNet as the common network that augments all existing LMR networks used for Push-To-Talk (PTT) voice with the inclusion of data and video. 

Next, unlike commercial networks, FirstNet was designed from day one to be the most secure wireless network possible. It was mandatory that it meet all the stringent requirements for the medical community as well as law enforcement and the federal government rules when it comes to obtaining or sharing data. It also needed to be as secure as possible to prevent hacking or the introduction of malware or other viruses. This security was to be designed in and built in prior to the network’s launch and those charged with building and running the network had to agree on both having a separate and private core or central heart of the network and monitoring and updating the network on a full-time basis.

It was also planned to provide a store-like location on the network for finding public safety-specific software written to take advantage of the attributes of the network. Such software would be tested and verified as secure before being made available. Next was a way to view network information from a local perspective to determine if all cell sites in a given area are up and operating and have standby transportable cell sites to be brought in to locations where network service has been interrupted. Further, this local control provides agencies with a way to manage all of their own FirstNet assets without having to contact network personnel. There are many more reasons this network was envisioned by the public safety community for its exclusive use including a special help desk solely for public safety access, an agency view into the network not available on any other network, and more. 

Perhaps these reasons and more are why all fifty states and six territories opted in to FirstNet. To be clear, when a state opts in, it does not mean it was committing agencies within that state to become part of FirstNet. However, it was the first step and states such as Arizona now have a statewide contract with FirstNet to provide services at the same price to all agencies. Since the opting period expired at the end of December 2017, more than 3,000 agencies have joined FirstNet. In addition, FirstNet is available not only to local agencies but to state, tribal, and federal agencies as well. (Note the U.S. Navy just announced it will be joining FirstNet.) During the last major hurricanes and wildfires, agencies such as FEMA, for the first time, had the capability to communicate directly with all other agencies at the incident.

How to Join FirstNet

There are a number of ways for a local agency to join FirstNet. First you have to realize that you don’t have to commit your entire department to FirstNet, you can start with a few devices for your senior people or a test group of people at various levels. In many cases you can request some FirstNet devices to try out for a period of time. If you go this route, based on previous experience, I believe you need to seed these devices to some of the older as well as younger people within the agency, and perhaps some that are gun-shy of new technologies. Next, if you have a trial in progress, you should require some form of periodic reporting of successes and failures or even if some devices were not really put into service. If you are concerned about FirstNet coverage, there are companies that can run comparison network tests and provide you with the details, or with a few FirstNet devices, you can run your own tests. One of the best groups of testers consists of EMS personnel since they typically enter more of your coverage area in a shorter period of time than others.

Once you are satisfied that FirstNet will fulfill your broadband needs today and into the future, you can then equip your entire department all at once or over time. You can also integrate items such as dashcams and bodycams into the network. You will also discover you can locate the nearest fixed-camera to an incident and send video from that camera to those responding to the incident. As NG911 (Next Generation 9-1-1) becomes more prevalent, it will provide additional information to responders or personnel on the scene. This is because NG911 enables citizens to send still and video pictures of the incident as it happens or as it develops. There remain a number of issues as to how to ensure citizens’ still and video pictures are “clean” and free of malware but many vendors are working on this aspect.

One thing I found helpful in placing FirstNet devices within an agency is to start with the younger and perhaps newest members of the staff. Younger people have grown up with smartphones and have learned their way around them. They can easily help older members of your staff to ensure they get the most out of FirstNet devices. In return, older staff members can train younger ones in the proper way to use the LMR PTT system that is probably as foreign to them as smartphones are to certain other groups. 

Joining as an Individual

If your department is not a member of FirstNet and you are a qualified first responder, you can join FirstNet by simply visiting an AT&T store. My local store in Scottsdale, Arizona employs a number of people who have shown an interest and have been trained in what FirstNet is and what type of identification is required. If your own phone is already on the AT&T network you can upgrade to FirstNet status, probably minus Band 14 but still usable on FirstNet. If you are not an AT&T customer, the company does offer a number of devices enabled for FirstNet including iPhones, Samsung Galaxys, Sonim and Motorola hardened phones, and more. 

When Personal Computers (PCs) first came on the scene with the Apple II and then the IBM PC, many IT managers convinced senior-level executives to not permit workers to buy a PC on the company dime. Over time, more and more worker-purchased PCs showed up on company desktops. This finally drove senior-level managers to change their policy about PCs within the company. While I am certainly not encouraging members of a public safety community to disregard agency policy, I do believe if one, two, or more individuals within an agency become experienced with FirstNet along with available devices and resources, the network will catch on with others in the agency.

FirstNet is the only non-commercial public safety network available today. Yes, it makes use of AT&T’s entire holdings of LTE spectrum as well as the D Block (band 14), but it does so as a totally private network with a separate core. For all intents and purposes, FirstNet is a standalone network with stringent guidelines for its use and complete pre-emption when the network is needed by public safety. 

There are a number of ways to join FirstNet from jumping in as an agency, to outfitting specific people within an agency, to individuals within an agency joining on their own. Each way works and some agencies that sign onto FirstNet decide, at least for a while, to keep a second commercial broadband network as well, not under contract but on an as-needed basis. As FirstNet continues to build out its network and band 14 along with 5G as it is deployed, its footprint can only expand. If it covers your agency’s area today, it will most likely blanket it tomorrow.

Winding Down

At the end of February, I will be attending the FirstNet Association (FNA) learning session to be held near Phoenix in Mesa. Then in March it is off to the IACP Tribal Nations Chiefs meeting followed by IWCE where on Wednesday morning I will be participating in a panel called, “Intelligibility versus Voice Quality, Assuring What Matters Most.” Wednesday afternoon, I’ll be on a panel entitled, “The Who, What and Where of Accessing the FirstNet Network: BYOD, Subscriptions, and Authentication,” moderated by Donny Jackson, editor-in-chief of Urgent Communications

Thursday starts out with an open meeting of the Government Wireless Technology & Communications Association (GWTCA) of which I am a board member and vice-president. This is followed by a panel on ‘FirstNet and Public Safety Broadband Cybersecurity’ I will moderate, then a panel entitled, “The Changing Workforce: Finding Workers, Attracting Millennials,” moderated by Dr. Michael Britt. This panel discusses technical expertise to keep networks running and understanding how to interface with FirstNet. Finally, on Friday I will moderate a panel on ‘Multimedia from the Field to the PSAP’ then dash off to the IWCE advisory council meeting as one of its newest members.

It will be a busy, interesting few days. I hope I have enough time on the show floor, which is, frankly, my favorite part of IWCE and similar shows. That is where I can talk to vendors, see what they have to offer and when it will be available, and in some cases, under NDA become privy to products and ideas not yet ready for prime time. I also like to visit smaller vendors to see what these companies are thinking about and brewing up for public safety.

The following week I am off to Honolulu for a combination work/vacation. The work is spending a few days with a client on the Palmyra Atoll, which is 1,000 miles from Honolulu (the vacation part). During World War II, this atoll was the site of a gun emplacement to protect the route to the United States after Pearl Harbor. We are tasked with specifying and overseeing installation of a new VHF repeater system, Marine Radio, Aviation Radio, AIS (for monitoring ships at sea), ADS (for monitoring aircraft), and perhaps some other communications gear. Palmyra Atoll presents some unique challenges including the fact that the FCC does not seem to know it is a territory of the United States.

Then back to the mainland to return to FirstNet and public safety. With all this activity on my agenda, it appears I will not have time to write Public Safety Advocate issues, post them on AllThingsFirstNet.com, or send them to our subscribers during the first two weeks of March. I plan to resume these activities the following week. 

If you come to IWCE and happen to see me wandering the show, the floor, or the conference, please come up to me and say “hello.” I always enjoy meeting Advocate readers and appreciate hearing their comments whether favorable or critical.

Andrew M. Seybold
©2019, Andrew Seybold, Inc.

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1 Comment on "Public Safety Advocate: Joining FirstNet"

  1. John Contestabile | February 21, 2019 at 12:43 pm | Reply

    Andy, hope to see you at IWCE…I am on three panels as well…
    COML Update: Managing Information at the Incident – Tuesday at 10 am
    Video Surveillance – Quality, Analytics, Cybersecurity and Privacy – Tuesday at 2:30
    Local Control and QoS in Public Safety Broadband – Thursday at 2:15 pm
    Would like to catch up!

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