Public Safety Advocate: Looking Back and Ahead

This second 2021 Advocate is the last before the swearing in of the new administration. This week, we look back at the Nashville Bombing and why there was a delay in restoring communications. I will also weigh in on the new Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and amplify my call for a public-safety communications professional inside the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau (PSHSB) and the need to restart a public-safety advisory council to advise the FCC going forward. Next, I will cover new vendor advances that will bring us closer to our Push-To-Talk (PTT) interoperability goals. And of course, I have to comment on a new report entitled, “ProSe (Proximity Services) For LTE & 5G Network Market Research Report 2020-2026.” Finally, I will share my thoughts on what I believe needs to be accomplished this year by both The FirstNet Authority and FirstNet (Built with AT&T).

Nashville Bombing and Recovery Efforts

By now, we are all familiar with the deliberate bombing in Nashville on Christmas Day. The RV containing the bomb was parked directly in front of the AT&T building, which is a hub for not only AT&T services, but also for fiber routes rented by other vendors and network operators. While this building is forty-years-old, the equipment it housed was state-of-the-art for all the services routed through this hub. Damage to the building was extensive, but after the explosion, the systems it contained continued to operate for more than three hours thanks to the extensive battery back-up. 

The real damage was in the basement. Unfortunately, generators have been routinely located in basements. Previous outages in New Orleans (Hurricane Katrina), on the East Coast (Hurricane Sandy), and elsewhere have demonstrated that installing generators in basements of buildings is not a good idea. The Nashville Bombing underscored this point. The blast took out power to the building and caused a watermain break, flooding the basement and disabling the generators

Somehow, Murphy’s Law inserted itself in a sequence of events to delay reactivation of many services based in the building. AT&T quickly ordered up large generators on trucks. Meanwhile, those on the ground were told the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had two large generators on nearby trucks and they would be sent to power the building. However, after they arrived, these generators would not start! The fuel tanks were empty!! Being Christmas Day, finding fuel and delivering it to the bomb site took longer than it should have. However, once the generators were fueled and operational, an orderly restart of equipment in the building was undertaken and, for the most part, all services came back online. 

Nashville public-safety agencies use their own Land Mobile Radio (LMR) systems and FirstNet. The FirstNet system stayed up on battery power for the first three hours after the blast and FirstNet quickly brought in its Cells On Wheels (COWs) to provide coverage when the batteries ran out of juice. Meanwhile, AT&T worked closely with law enforcement on the scene, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) once the entire area was declared a crime scene. It has been reported that FirstNet/AT&T personnel on the ground were able to work closely with the FBI and law enforcement, minimizing the delays in restoring systems. 

AT&T and other network operators will be making some changes based on lessons learned during and after the Nashville Bombing that resulted in outages in Nashville and other areas. The portion of 9-1-1 that delivers location information was down but, for the most part, incoming 9-1-1 calls were answered and location was determined the old-fashioned way—by asking the reporting party. Other broadband networks were also affected because their backhaul, provided by AT&T, was routed through the Nashville building.

There will continue to be after-incident assessments and changes will be implemented not only in Nashville, but by AT&T and other network operators since the Nashville Bombing disrupted a wide variety of services. It should be noted that AT&T responded quickly and efficiently. I have wonder if FirstNet would have been back on the air as quickly as it was if the FirstNet RFP had been won by a systems integrator (a few were planning to bid).

Yes, there was a single point of failure, but AT&T responded quickly and with all the appropriate resources. The FirstNet Authority RFP calls for network hardening, but we should remember that AT&T is still in the process of building out the network and meeting The FirstNet Authority’s requirements. There are lessons to be learned from this incident by AT&T, FirstNet, The FirstNet Authority, and other broadband operators and vendors that provide communications services. It should be noted that no matter how much care is taken in building networks, there is always the possibility there will be a single point of failure somewhere in the chain. And, of course, Murphy will be there to find that point. 

The New FCC

Many of you know I believe actions of the previous FCC, which is about to be replaced with the new FCC, caused or have the potential to cause a lot of damage to both critical-communications systems and our ability to locate people or incidents using the Global Positioning System (GPS) so many agencies and services rely on. I am not sure how long it will take to undo some of the damage, but I hope the new FCC will do a better job of both allocating spectrum and ensuring interference levels are kept to a minimum. Just as important, it needs to ensure when there are interference issues it is possible to identify the cause and correct it. This is a major concern, especially as unlicensed WiFi 6 begins to be rolled out under our critical-communications microwave systems.  

I hope when the new administration is sworn in, Commissioner Rosenworcel will be considered for the Chairmanship of the FCC. Commissioner Rosenworcel has demonstrated again and again that she understands the requirements of those that need access to spectrum including finally extending broadband into rural America. I would also like to see the new FCC set up an advisory committee for critical communications that includes public safety. It has been too long since the FCC had people experienced with critical communications available to counsel it. Finally, I would like to see a seasoned public-safety communications professional take the reins of the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau within the FCC. 

Rural Broadband

The FCC can continue to push for more ways to overcome the digital divide. Many bills have been brought before Congress to form a federal clearinghouse or other organization to take over the too many federal agencies involved in rural broadband activities, grants, and loans. It does not make sense for multiple agencies using different criteria to dole out grants and loans for broadband. Further, there needs to be follow-on funding for continued operation and expansion of new broadband installations. Within only a few years, almost every person, business, school, and other facility can have access to broadband services if we consolidate monetary resources. 

The United States is rich in technologies to accomplish this: fiber, wireless (wide-area, local-area, last mile, and in-building), soon 5G LEO (Low Earth Orbiting) satellites, and more. Instead of deciding, for example, a given area will run fiber to homes and farms and then finding a grant or loan that supports that, the process should start with identifying the best way to cover the area, which types or combinations of broadband will provide the best, least-expensive solution, and then seeking funding followed by implementation. I am hopeful the new administration and new FCC can set in motion a nationwide move toward solving the digital divide once and for all. 

Push-To-Talk Interoperability

We still have not solved the push-to-talk over FirstNet interoperability issue nor have we developed a truly easy and inexpensive solution for PTT FirstNet/broadband and land mobile radio integration. Both are necessary and it is disheartening to see committee after committee, standards bodies, and others continue down the path they are on. It is promising that some companies providing push-to-talk services are talking among themselves and others in related fields to provide solutions. 

There have been some important developments in the area of public-safety push-to-talk during 2020. First was the announcement of FirstNet PTT, a Mission-Critical Push-To-Talk (MCPTT) application based on a Samsung application considered to be 3GPP MCPTT-compliant, even though not all the features and functions have been implemented as of this writing. Next were announcements from Southern Link and later Verizon that they have implemented their own MCPTT applications based on the Ericsson flavor of MCPTT. Strangely enough, after Verizon made its announcement, it also announced a new relationship or renewed agreement with Motorola to also provide the Kodiak version of push-to-talk.

Only three vendors are able to offer interoperability with various PTT systems in use on FirstNet and other broadband systems. Their PTT products are based on the ESChat over-the-top PTT application. We have been told there will be some positive activity in this area in 2021, and it will be welcomed. Another missing piece is the Internetworking Function (IWF), which is detailed in specification 29.305 of the 3GPP standards. Samsung has entered into a contract with a third party to supply its form of IWF, and others are working on their own versions. I have been told ESChat already has its version of IWF up and running and will be presenting a demonstration to the LTE/LMR integration committees working on interoperability solutions.

ESChat has also entered into an agreement to provide ESChat PTT on Samsung devices. This then, enables Samsung to be MCPTT-compliant with its FirstNet-Certified PTT application along with ESChat, a solution that is available on Samsung devices. Once again, I will disclose that in the past I have written white papers for ESChat. However, as of this writing, ESChat is not a client. Having said that, the most recent ESChat partnership is between ESChat and Zetron. Zetron is part of the JVCKenwood family and builds consoles for use within dispatch facilities. Last week, ESChat announced the release of its second-generation Android application that was developed to specifically address interoperable hybrid networks consisting of broadband PTT, LMR, and dispatch solutions.

The Zetron/ESChat partnership means ESChat customers that have or purchase the Zetron Acom or MAX-Dispatch console are able to provide a wide variety of ESChat sessions using different talk groups including emergency alerting in both directions, bridging talk groups in one-way or two-way PTT sessions, and much more. A video that shows some of its capabilities and provides more information can be viewed here: https://youtu.be/LFI0z7gAh1w.  

A number of vendor organizations have not been waiting for completion of the next 3GPP standard to work on areas of interoperability. Last year was interesting for public-safety PTT but we still appear to be a long way from realization of common interoperability for FirstNet/broadband and LMR systems. 

I am hopeful we will see many of these issues resolved in 2021. It appears to me that the vendor community is moving forward faster than 3GPP folks. The vendors know what needs to be done and will make it happen. 

Proximity Services (ProSe)

The 3GPP standards body has continued its work on Proximity Services (ProSe). ProSe is a fancy name for off-network communications that public safety has been using since the 1930s. In today’s public-safety community, off-network communications are vital for many types of routine and emergency incidents. Off-network PTT is designed for when users are within range of a network but want to keep their communications local so their chatter does not jam up the wide-area network. It is also critical when public-safety personnel are out of network coverage, deep inside buildings, in sub-basements, or beyond the-wide area network’s footprint. As important, off-network communications are required when some using off-network push-to-talk are within network range and some are out of network range. Last year, I published a list of tests I believe need to be met before a new form of off-network communications can replace what public-safety has now in the way of off-network land mobile radio PTT. 

Push-to-X was born when the 3GPP stepped up to the challenge of providing off-network communications. Since off-network will be aimed at broadband, it must be for more than simply PTT services. It must provide for push-to-communicate via photo, video, data, or whatever else needs to be sent from one person to another or a group of people without using the wide-area network. Issues with broadband off-network communications start with the fact that typical broadband devices such as smartphones have a maximum transmit power of about 0.25 watts. Further, a typical broadband device is usually controlled by the network, which steers traffic to the appropriate device(s). 

Typical off-network PTT in LMR systems works in one of two ways. It either uses “simplex” or radio channels not associated with the network. Off-network can also be accomplished by “talk-around,” which means a mobile device is set to transmit and receive on what is normally the network’s base station frequency. As a result, the traffic is not on the network, it is on the mobile units. If in range of the network, network traffic can also be heard if needed. Power output from LMR handhelds or mobile radios is considerably higher than that of a typical broadband device. In the VHF and UHF bands, output from a handheld can be up to about 5 watts, and handhelds have external antennas, not antennas built into the device. In the 700/800-bands, power levels are reduced to 2.0 watts, but that is still significantly higher than the 0.25-watt capability of smartphones.

If and when higher-power handheld devices become available on broadband systems, their off-network capabilities will not be equal to those of LMR devices. (Today, High Power User Equipment (HPUE) devices are restricted to public-safety Band 14, which is the primary FirstNet spectrum.) So far, ProSe device range is not very good and two people can yell farther than ProSe can communicate. ProSe can use a second device as a relay, but that requires assurance the device will not be reassigned to a different location during an incident. The 3GPP is now working on ProSe for 5G systems as well as LTE. One company has decided ProSe is important enough to crank out a typical report we see advertised all the time. Usually, these reports are geared to tell us (for a price) how much the LMR market, the public-safety broadband market, or the 5G market will grow over the next five years. 

Advertising for this reports states, “GLOBAL PROSE (PROXIMITY SERVICES) FOR LTE & 5G NETWORK MARKET CAGR GROWTH FORECAST OUTLOOK | DT (DEUTSCHE TELEKOM), EE, ERICSSON, FACEBOOK, FIRSTNET (FIRST RESPONDER NETWORK AUTHORITY), HOME OFFICE, UK, HUAWEI, IEEE (INSTITUTE OF ELECTRICAL AND ELECTRONICS ENGINEERS), INTEL CORPORATION, KT CORPORATION, M87, AND OTHER” 

The report projects how large the ProSe market will be from 2020-2026. A sample copy is available but the final version will be updated to reflect the impact of Covid-19 on the projections. The posted cost of the report is $3,500.00 for a single PDF copy or $7,000.00 for an Enterprise PDF copy (multiple readers). While I have no idea what is in this report, I have strong reservations about ProSe becoming the off-network, long-term solution for public-safety communications that will, at some point, negate the need for LMR systems for public safety worldwide. Perhaps ProSe will work for some types of services, but I doubt it will replace the need for LMR off-network communications in the foreseeable future. Trying to force-fit a solution into a technology it was not designed for is not necessarily the best use of engineering talent. Perhaps the resources being poured into ProSe would be better used, and public safety better served, if the time and effort was spent on providing better, less-expensive hybrid LMR/broadband devices. 

Winding Down

We are all hoping 2021 will be much better than 2020 in many ways. Vaccines have been shipped and are being injected into arms and, hopefully, at some point this year, we will see a return to a more normal life style. The IWCE conference usually held in March each year has been scheduled as a live event in Las Vegas in September. I hope by then we can feel safe traveling to the conference, attending the sessions, and meeting with vendors and customers. Unfortunately, the number of major incidents will probably be the same: wildland fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, and other incidents that will require multiple agencies to respond and work together. This, of course, is the reason FirstNet was created, and in 2020, FirstNet proved to be a valuable communications tool at many of these major incidents. 

I expect to see some new and exciting capabilities, devices, and applications make their debut in 2021 and I expect AT&T to continue to stay well ahead of The FirstNet Authority contract requirements. There is still a lot of work to be done and I hope 2021 will be when every agency using FirstNet will be able to connect to many existing land mobile radio systems in addition to all other agencies using FirstNet. 

Lastly, stand by for some changes to the Advocate this year. We have some ideas about following each month’s columns with podcasts in which we will talk to industry experts and hear their take on topics we covered that month. 

Until next week…

Andrew M. Seybold
©2021, Andrew Seybold, Inc.

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