Public Safety Advocate: LMR and Broadband Networks

Before there was cellular, and later broadband cellular, there were and still are hundreds of Land Mobile Radio (LMR) networks.

Two-way radio (LMR) dates back to the 1930s and has steadily progressed over the years. Today there are local, regional, statewide, and federal LMR systems. They all provided reliable public-safety grade Push-to-Talk (PTT) and some could handle very low-speed data and text. 

The limitations of LMR systems are what motivated the public-safety community to fight hard and long for its own broadband network. LMR systems are spread out across relatively small portions of radio spectrum which, in most cases, are shared with business, paging, and similar users. For years, LMR devices, both handheld and mobile, were single-band units and could communicate on only one slice of spectrum. This meant agencies, often even in the same city, were operating in different portions of public-safety LMR spectrum and were unable to talk to each other. As you can imagine, this created logistic problems when more than one agency was involved in an incident. This situation occurs more often today because of changes in weather, other natural causes, manmade disasters, and more. 

LMR enabled public-safety personnel to talk to a dispatch center and to other units in the field, usually one-to-many, and today it provides the only form of off-network communications available.

As 3G and 4G cellular/broadband systems came online in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a number of public-safety agencies began to experiment with broadband systems and found they could provide many more forms of communications in addition to push-to-talk. There is dial-up for phone calls, text messaging, and the ability to send and receive pictures, video, and data information. The downside of commercial cellular was that public safety did not have priority access on any of the networks. In times of heavy broadband use, public safety was not always able to use wireless broadband systems. 

The public, especially in Washington DC, was not aware of these issues until major incidents starting with the Oklahoma Bombing resulted in the news media reporting on the issues of both the inability for multiple agencies to share their LMR communications and their inability to access commercial cellular systems. 

At this point, public safety realized that a nationwide system of communications was needed and a number of organizations came together to work with Congress, the FCC, and the Executive Branch of the U.S. Government to try to free up some spectrum and perhaps find some funding. It took many years and a great deal of work, but in February of 2012, the then-President signed a bill that included the creation of a Public Safety Nationwide Broadband Network (PSNBN) and an independent authority to manage the public/private partnership as called out in the law.

Thus, the FirstNet Authority was created, its first board of directors was appointed by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), and work began. 

Unfortunately, the road to FirstNet had some twists and turns along the way. Some were related to politics, some to the bidding process, and there was a legal challenge to the contract award. It took until March 2017 for the FirstNet Authority to issue a contract to AT&T to build, operate, and maintain what is now known as “FirstNet (Built with AT&T),” the nationwide public-safety broadband network. 

Immedicably after signing the contract, AT&T announced that as it built out the public-safety spectrum nationwide (Band 14), public safety could use all of AT&T’s existing broadband spectrum and AT&T would enable both priority access and pre-emption, even on its commercial spectrum. 

Fast forward to today, 2022. The FirstNet system is up and running, AT&T is about finished with the Band-14 build-out, and there are hundreds of devices and applications available to the 3.3 million FirstNet users. All of this not only confirms that FirstNet has been a huge success, it has also created some competition for FirstNet. During the FirstNet bidding, no other commercial broadband network submitted a bid. The other two potential bidders did not have a track record for deploying a nationwide broadband network and it appeared that at least one planned to build out only public-safety Band-14 spectrum. This raised some concerns with network overload since a majority of incidents occur in a small area that may be covered by only one cell sector or cell site. The AT&T concept was far superior since it not only made Band 14 available to public safety, it also made all of the AT&T spectrum available. 

Verizon, one of the companies that chose not to submit a bid, announced at an APCO conference in 2017, that it would compete with FirstNet for the public-safety business. It said it would offer priority and pre-emption and build a second core (brain) dedicated to first responders. 

In spite of Verizon’s efforts, FirstNet (Built with AT&T) has attracted a large number of local, state, and federal agencies and reported recently that it had 3.3 million users on the network and this number continues to grow each month.

There are a many reasons FirstNet is growing so rapidly. The first is the dedication of both the FirstNet Authority and FirstNet (Built with AT&T). These organizations have hired many experienced retired or active public-safety personnel. Another reason is that from the start, AT&T was truly interested in building out this network for public safety. What’s more, Band-14 spectrum allocated for public safety and licensed by the FCC to the FirstNet Authority is now available to AT&T. This spectrum is reserved for public safety use on a nationwide basis when needed. Band-14 spectrum is different from any commercial broadband spectrum where devices in the field are limited to 0.25 watts of power. 

FirstNet and commercial networks that are approved by the 3GPP, with the FCC’s concurrence, can operate devices on Band 14 at increased power levels up to 1.25 watts. This is a huge difference for those in the field since the higher wattage provides improved and greater Band-14 coverage along with higher up to the network data rates. The Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC), which reports to the FirstNet Board of Directors, is made up of individuals who are still involved with public safety, and this organization is yet another asset that is available to FirstNet.

For its part, Verizon has come up with a name for its public-safety service and has been pushing to join FirstNet and Verizon’s public-safety cores at the hip so those who access Verizon for their public-safety broadband needs will be able to access the FirstNet network as well. 

Connecting two networks together through the networks’ brains is a very bad idea that would increase the risk of malware, hackers, and other actors being able to find weak points and compromise not one but both networks. The idea of broadband-to-broadband connectivity may be a good one, but it can be accomplished in a much simpler, less expensive way without risking intrusions from outsiders trying to break in. The issues that preclude this type of network-to-network interoperability are more political than technical. The technology has been in use on both networks for a number of years. However, even if both networks agreed to provide interoperability between them, it is not possible today because both FirstNet and Verizon have multiple push-to-talk vendors with different flavors of PTT. Until there is a common, nationwide PTT system on FirstNet, there is no reason to even consider expanding interoperability to other broadband networks. 

Hopefully, the task of providing nationwide PTT over FirstNet is underway. So far, the 3GPP PTT standard has been late to the party, lacks LMR interoperability, and has been very slow to be rolled out. Meanwhile, most of the FirstNet PTT user community has already chosen their PTT service. But there may be hope on the horizon since the vendor of one of the most widely used PTT systems on FirstNet has been able to integrate both LMR and FirstNet systems in a number of configurations. There is also a Software Developers Kit (SDK) that is capable of creating a PTT network that could make use of both the 3GPP standard and the existing FirstNet (Built with AT&T)-Certified PTT application. 

While nationwide PTT is, as far as I am concerned, a real priority, there are other things in the works to augment what public safety has today in the way of communications. 

Public Safety’s Greatest Need

Next-Generation 9-1-1 (NG911) is the most needed application today. This iteration of 9-1-1 will convert the current, very old standard landline access to Emergency Communications Centers (ECCs) and replace it with broadband to enable much more information in many more and different formats to be received from citizens who are reporting an incident.  

There are some NG911 systems in use today. California undertook a statewide upgrade to its systems, and some cities and counties in both the mid-west and on the east coast have also moved to NG911 systems. However, the cost to upgrade all of the Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) could be in the $12 to 15 Billon range. 

In fact, $15 Billion was in the Build Back Better bill that did not pass Congress. Now Congress and the FCC are looking at new ways to fund this important upgrade. 

Once NG911 is up and operational in an area, citizens will be able to call, text, send pictures, and send video to a NG911 center. This information can be vetted (perhaps using Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology) and then be sent out to those responding to the incident so they have more information before they arrive at the scene. This also works for video cameras installed in many cities and live video from the nearest camera can be streamed to the responders. 

It is important for all three of these networks to be up and running and working in concert with each other. LMR is not going away. I consider NG911 to be the information pipe that feeds the FirstNet pipe so our first responders are better prepared as they report to an incident. LMR will remain the lifeline and the only technology today that provides true off-network communications for the public-safety community. 

Public-safety communications have come a very long way since two-way radio was implemented in the 1930s. PTT has played a significant role the entire time and will continue to do so. However, being able to provide pictures, videos, and data services, all in real time, has already made a huge difference in how prepared our first responders are when they report to incidents and how they help citizens they serve stay safe in these uncertain times. 

It seems there is always more to be done, and we must continue to provide our public-safety community with the best of the best.

Winding Down

For the third year in a row, I will have to miss APCO even as close as it is in Anaheim, California. Travel is much more difficult for me since I lost most of my eyesight more than a year ago. I will miss seeing old friends and making new ones. 

It also occurred to me, as it has probably occurred to many Advocate readers, that those of us who have lived and breathed communications for many years are getting up in age. More and more public-safety communications personnel are retiring, IT shops seem to be taking over tasks normally assigned to the “comm shop,” and each year our knowledge bank shrinks. We will need to find a way to entice younger folks to join us in the area of wireless communications. We will also need to mentor them and give them the benefit of our experiences so they don’t make the same mistakes we have (and hopefully corrected). When I was walking around APCO, IACP, IAFC, NAS, and IWCE with conference attendees, I was thinking about how we might retain this knowledge and pass it on to those who will follow us. 

This is especially true for public-safety communications. We have watched its evolution from PTT over LMR to broadband and hopefully LMR and NG911 as we head into the 5G era. We need younger people who can understand the differences between public-safety communications and using a cell phone and can observe and share experiences with those who design and improve our technologies. Hopefully, these younger people will be able to recognize what might be of interest to the critical-communications industry as well as the commercial communications industry. 

Perhaps each of us who has learned the hard way can take a few minutes to jot down some notes about things that went wrong and how problems were resolved as well as things that went right and why they did. One thought I pass on to those who are just starting out is, “Why is there never enough time to do something right the first time but there is always time to do it over again?

Until next week…

Andrew M. Seybold
©2022, Andrew Seybold, Inc.


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