Public Safety Advocate: LMR and LTE, Not Either Or!

[Editor’s Note: This week’s newsletter is being published early due to impending cataract surgery and recovery.]

Sometimes what we are trying to convey is interpreted by others as something we did not intend; perhaps we were not clear enough in our comments. This was certainly the case last week when an article was published that seemed to imply forward thinking state governors should cancel Land Mobile Radio (LMR) upgrades in favor of FirstNet expenditures. The person credited with these statements was the Chairwoman of FirstNet, Sue Swenson, so they carried a lot of weight and started a furor within the public safety community. One SPOC claimed that based on these statements the state would no longer approve a $ 22 million LMR system upgrade needed for the state’s LMR system (third-hand information to me). Others said if forced to decide between joining FirstNet (Built by AT&T) and keeping their LMR systems they would opt for LMR.

I reached out to Sue Swenson and we had a very good conversation in which she explained in detail that she is on the same page as the public safety community and FirstNet the Authority, FirstNet (Built by AT&T), and the others that understand going forward does not mean abandoning LMR in favor of FirstNet. Although that might be possible at some point, we again agreed it will only happen when the public safety community decides it can trust FirstNet with its lives and when or if it is ever able to deliver off-network or direct-mode that can replace direct-mode from 5-watt handheld LMR radios—a tall order to say the least. There are only two ways to solve the direct-mode issue in the short term. The first and most sensible is to use existing licensed channels for direct-mode. The only other way I see around the direct-mode issue is for FirstNet coverage to be something no network can ever be: 100% ubiquitous.

The Intended Purpose of the Comments

In my conversation with Sue, it quickly became clear that the message she was trying to deliver was quite different from the message many readers took away from the article. Her premise is that as FirstNet is stood up and administrators, inspectors, and other non-first-line public safety personnel are moved off LMR networks and transitioned to FirstNet, and as more details of a dispatch are sent to responders via FirstNet, the amount of voice traffic over existing LMR systems will diminish (and already has in some cases). This, then, might reduce the need for additional expenditures for LMR upgrades and retrofits.

I am not yet convinced this type of trade-off is possible but I am certainly open to the ideas put forth. As Sue stated, the premise is that as voice traffic is lessened over LMR, all of the upgrades or retrofits suggested by an LMR vendor may not be necessary. Her example was a statewide system with an upgrade price tag of $200 million. Since the amount of voice traffic on the network was or will be reduced due to FirstNet coming online, perhaps the upgrade costs could be reduced to $100 million and still serve the public safety community as effectively and efficiently. This makes the assessment and decision process a bit more complex but important to consider as new technology capabilities become available and the resultant economics could be more favorable.

Like anything else, I am certain this logic can and will be debated and there will be no clear path forward until we have some empirical data that shows LMR voice traffic has indeed been reduced. The idea behind her logic is worth considering as long as those elected and tasked with balancing the economics between existing LMR systems and FirstNet are properly educated and understand why both systems need to co-exist for years to come. While LMR systems do not tend to be upgraded as often as new broadband handsets and tablets, they still need to be refreshed and, in some cases, it is the vendor who makes a system obsolete by declaring it at the end of its life and, therefore, parts are no longer available. LMR customers come to understand this is an untenable situation to be in and not one of their own choosing. Sometimes end-of-life declared by a vendor is legitimate in my view, and sometimes it appears as though it is simply a way to spur more LMR systems replacements. Either way, it puts the public safety community in a difficult situation.

There are other reasons to upgrade an LMR network. For example, deploying additional satellite receivers (meaning remote to the base station) would enable lower-power handhelds to be heard better over the network. Other examples include adding a new simulcast site to fill in coverage or putting distributed antennas systems or micro-base stations in buildings, stadiums, and other places where LMR communications is needed but not available.

A Balancing Act

When our call was finished, I looked back over my notes and thought about the point Sue was trying to make as opposed to what many readers believed she was making. I concluded that what lies ahead for elected officials is a balancing act that needs to be carefully studied. Further, decisions should be made not only on the cost of one system versus the another or replacing LMR with FirstNet which, at this point in time is dangerous for the first responder community. It must be understood that the sum of the two networks is what provides public safety with most if not all the communications tools they have been seeking. Removing LMR networks from the equation at this point in time is not an option. If you think it is, read the study conducted within the State of North Carolina. This study was not conducted by outside vendors or consultants but by people within the state, specifically the General Assembly’s Program Evaluation division. The report states that both LMR and FirstNet are necessary to provide the different types and forms of communications needed by the public safety community. The report can be found here.

Winding Down

It seems that in this day and age many people are quick to jump on statements made by others without trying to determine whether the statements really convey the thoughts of the person or if his/her words were heard differently by another, or even if the way the conversation was reported by a writer was not as clear as what was communicated during the interview. In any event, the issue of LMR versus FirstNet needs to be put to rest in favor of the true goal of all those involved. LMR andFirstNet complement each other and over time, connections between LMR and FirstNet will become commonplace so both can be used for Push-To-Talk (PTT) and other services depending on the need.

Have or will LMR networks see a reduction in voice traffic? We don’t have any data one way or another but we are still experimenting with FirstNet and its capabilities, so this question will become more crucial next year or the year after. If the answer is “yes,” then the Chairwoman of FirstNet is correct and upgrades and enhancements to LMR systems may cost less than some vendors would like us to believe. Even then, she agrees with public safety that both LMR and FirstNet need to co-exist for years to come. Sue adds, “It would be unfortunate for people to think I felt they should move completely away from LMR before it was time.”

Andrew M. Seybold
©2018, Andrew Seybold, Inc.

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