Public Safety Advocate: Looking Back, Looking Forward, and Firstnet Devices

As I comb through my Advocates since the middle of 2010, I continue to find more to add to the book that is underway. I also find topics that are still applicable today or that drew public-safety agencies to look into becoming FirstNet subscribers.

FirstNet was approved in February 2012, and the initial FirstNet board of directors meeting was scheduled for the following week. Below are excerpts from the September 19, 2012, Advocate article, “While We Wait for FirstNet.” Keep in mind that this was after FirstNet was authorized but before the initial FirstNet Board meeting:

“The FirstNet Board of Directors has been appointed and its first meeting is September 25, 2012. I am sure that it will take awhile for the directors to get organized and to review the many documents that have been submitted for their consideration by many different organizations including NPSPC, APCO, and others. While we know now that the Public Safety Nationwide Broadband Network will happen, but we are not sure of the timing. However, while we wait, agencies can have their first experiences with the benefits of LTE by contracting with commercial network operators.

The caveat is that your agency can start using LTE today, with good results, but during an emergency you may or may not be able to access the commercial network you have chosen because of network congestion and the lack of network priority for first responders. These are two of many reasons Congress was finally convinced that Public Safety needed its own broadband network, but you can still learn a lot about what LTE can do for your department and those around you, and you can find out what types of applications you will be able to run and gain some firsthand experience with the benefits of LTE broadband.

It is not necessary to equip your entire fleet with broadband services, perhaps you can start with the Lieutenants or Sergeants in a police department, Battalion Chiefs of your fire departments, or perhaps your busiest EMS units. You can begin by outfitting the notebook computers in these vehicles with a commercial wireless broadband modem, either a USB dongle (not the best choice) or vehicular-mounted LTE modem with an external antenna. You can continue to use your existing data system if you have one and use the commercial LTE network for comparison, or you can switch over to the commercial LTE network completely. Either way, you will be able to gain firsthand experience with wireless broadband and the types of things it will enable your agency to accomplish in the field.

If you purchase or lease vehicular modems that will handle multiple devices (there are some on the market already), you will be able to use them for access to a commercial network today and be fairly confident that if they have support for band 14 (the Public Safety band on 700 MHz) you will be able to simply plug in a new radio and be up and running on the Public Safety network once it is built in your area. At the APCO show in Minneapolis in August, a number of vendors were demonstrating these dual modems. One caveat here, I believe that the Public Safety Communications Research program in Boulder will end up with the task of certifying these devices for use on the Public Safety system, but I also believe that you can probably make a deal with a vendor to provide you with upgraded modems at no additional charge once the final approvals are available.”

Later I wrote:

“Again, commercial networks should not be relied upon for mission-critical information or dispatch, nor should you count on them being available during emergencies where network congestion around the incident could hamper first responders’ access to the commercial networks. However, I believe that gaining experience with LTE broadband services and capabilities now is important and will help you and your department to be better prepared to add LTE broadband services to your existing voice and slow-speed Land Mobile Radio systems. You notice I said “add” to your existing voice systems. The Public Safety LTE broadband network is, first and foremost, about augmenting your voice capabilities and not replacing them.

Yes, work is being done and standards are being written to implement Voice over LTE (VoLTE) and I am sure you are aware that Metro PCS is offering VoLTE today, while Verizon is not far from introducing it. However, while VoLTE is dial-up voice for phone calls, it is not one-to-many, nor is it mission-critical in nature. It certainly does not support off-network, simplex, or talk-around. If and when voice over the Public Safety broadband network comes, it will be sometime into the future. The future varies depending on whose point of view you subscribe to. There are those who believe it will be real as early as 2015 or 2016 but I am more conservative believing that it will come in three stages: non-mission-critical push-to-talk by 2015, mission-critical PTT by 2018-19, and PERHAPS off-network or simplex by 2020 or beyond. In the meantime, continue to invest in your existing LMR systems and give LTE a try on one of the commercial networks.”

In my conclusions I advised:

“Don’t rely on it, but try it. Learn what broadband can and cannot do. Broadband should be looked upon as a new tool to make first responders safer, to assist the citizens better and faster, and to cut down on the voice traffic on your network. There is a learning curve for sure, but if you start now with commercial network operators, you should be ready when the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network comes to your county, city, or town.”

My vision of FirstNet was not 100% on the mark. I totally missed the fact that Push-To-Talk (PTT) over LTE would be coming and that it would be included in the FirstNet RFP. Thanks to the work begun by the Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR) committee of the National Institue of Standards and Technololgy (NIST), the concept of mission-critical voice over LTE was introduced to the 3GPP standards body. Over time, 3GPP approved what is called “mission-critical PTT ,” which means push-to-talk over LTE. 

Later, the 3GPP undertook a project to find a way to offer “off-network” push-to-talk, but the effort turned out to be to enable users who were close to each other to share information including videos, images, and voice. The key here is “users who are close together.” The 3GPP tried its best to make this even more interesting by inserting a standard to allow for a third user located between the the other two to become a relay point, thus increasing the distance between users.

Proximity Services (ProSe) was introduced during the latest round of 3GPP meetings, several of which were held in the United States. ProSe refers to off-network communications and a sub-set of ProSe known as Device-to-Device (D2D) or SideLink. From what I have read about the latest LTE releases, it is unclear how much the D2D specifications have changed, or if D2D will ever meet the off-network requirements demanded by the public-safety community. In the July 20, 2017 Advocate, I provided what I believe to be the requirements for push-to-talk, off-network, or direct-mode operation:

“Direct-mode is sometimes called simplex, talk-around, and if you are an IT type, peer-to-peer communications. The difference is that direct-mode must function:

  • One to one-unit communications
  • One to many-unit (groups)
  • Even while in network coverage
  • When some units are in network coverage and some units are not
  • When every unit is out of network range
  • One of the most vital uses for direct-mode is to be able to talk from street level deep into a building or parking structure (usually where there is no network coverage)
  • The final and perhaps most important use of direct mode is to be able to continue to communicate when the network does not work at all
  • Many LMR systems permit high power transmitters located at a high site to communicate with a handheld 20 or 30 miles away (depending on the spectrum in use and the terrain)
    • Many times, when a public safety network has failed, dispatches are still received in the field because of direct-mode operation
    • This means some type of network to device service must be maintained even if the network core is offline (this is a tough but hopefully solvable problem). However, because LTE is based on a cellular-type architecture, the size of the cells and the areas they cover can be made larger or smaller on demand. Unless there is a failure that impacts the entire network segment (cut fiber cable for example), the network should remain operational”

In a recent webinar in conjunction with Urgent Communications entitled “Off-network Communications,” I provided more specifics for my proposed off-network or D2D tests. In the second segment of the webinar, I presented slides covering off-network tests. The first slide reads: 

  • “Test requirements must be met for any off-network technology if it is to replace LMR off-network services
    • Street-level
    • Street-level surrounding incident (building)
    • Street-level to sub-basement
    • Street-level to top floor of high-rise
    • Wildland fires: multiple talk-groups or channels for different divisions and task groups
    • In case of network failure, device-to-device”

The balance of the slides depicted each of the tests I am proposing. Comments I have received from within the public-safety community indicate I am correct in my stated coverage requirements. 

A Look Ahead

FirstNet (Built with AT&T) remains well ahead of the completion dates for milestones as specified in the the FirstNet Authority contract. Now it is time to look beyond the network and focus on what I consider to be preconditions for a single, nationwide broadband network for the public-safety community. Of course, this network must provide coverage, which is in AT&T’s bailiwick, however, there are other needs that must to be addressed either in conjunction with the FirstNet network or by FirstNet itself.

My list of these preconditions includes: 

  • FirstNet PTT full interoperability for all FirstNet-approved PTT vendors.
  • This includes “over-the-top” push-to-talk applications designed to provide PTT on FirstNet and over any LTE network to FirstNet.
  • FirstNet-to-LMR interoperability, which is inexpensive to deploy but works.
  • A common group of applications to share data department-to-department without the need for any type of file conversion.
  • Full deployment of Next-Generation 9-1-1 (NG911) fully interoperable between Emergency Communications Centers (ECCs) along with the ability for vetted text, images, and video to be sent from the ECC to responders in the field.
  • More devices that provide both FirstNet and LMR functionality.
  • More concentration on FirstNet devices that can be operated with only one hand.

More could probably be added to this list; if you are an active first responder or work with first responders and have additional input or comments to offer on this topic, please relay them to me. 

Devices

As mentioned previously, I have been trying out and working with a number of FirstNet-approved devices in my shop. Several of these are designed to be installed in a vehicle, but since I have already installed three radio control heads, a tablet, and a Sierra MG-90 in my current vehicle, there is no room to install them there. 

The first device is the GPSLockbox Smartphone Cradle with PTT device. The unit is designed to turn a smartphone into a mobile unit with amplified speaker, a standard push-to-talk microphone, but not, at this point, an external antenna connection. The unit is compatible with a number of different smartphones. The unit I received is designed for a Sonim XP8, which I have. 

Having spent many of my early communications years designing and selling public-safety communications systems, I am familiar with the concept of converting a handheld into a mobile unit. Motorola had a car kit for several flavors of its handheld LMR products as did General Electric for its PE-series handhelds. The GPSLockbox is compelling mainly for supervisory or more administrative functions of public safety. The device is well-designed, the smartphone mounts easily, and the instructions recommend that the unit be installed by a qualified radio installer. 

The system is powered from the vehicle so the smartphone battery is always being charged, the speaker provides a full 10 watts of amplified speaker audio, and the system uses a familiar mobile-radio microphone. The only issue I have with the Sonim XP8 version is that a side connector must be screwed into the XP8 in order for speaker audio and PTT audio to go into and out of the unit. This means you must disconnect from the unit and can not simply grab the smartphone and exit the vehicle quickly. This is one reason I feel the Sonim XP8 and the GPS Lockbox mobile unit are best suited for personnel who are not considered primary responders. It would also be suitable for tow trucks and other vehicles that must operate in noisy environments.

A key lock is provided to secure the unit in the vehicle mount, and the GPSLockbox unit for the phone is spring-loaded. Once the phone is secured into the device, it will not jump out of the mount if you hit a bump in the road. All in all, I think this a great device for those who want a handheld but like the idea of a full-up vehicle radio with load audio and a microphone. I will probably mount this unit in another vehicle we have that has space for it. I guess I should have bought a bigger SUV!

Next on my list is the Kyocera DuraForce PRO 2, which Kyocera states is a military-grade 4G LTE device that includes FirstNet Band 14 and is on the FirstNet-approved device list. I asked for this phone because I am interested in the options as well as the phone. The phone itself has a glare-free screen and it is obviously a public-safety grade rugged device. I had it up and running in short order. You have to love the fact that Android-based phones support moving data from another Android phone or even an iPhone to a new Android-based phone, which makes setting up a fleet of new phones less painful.

The DuraForce is one of only a few devices with a dedicated push-to-talk button on the side (Sonim is another). This PTT button works with AT&T Enhanced PTT, or with ESChat if it has been installed. When more than one PTT application is onboard, the PTT button for the second app reverts to a screen button. Having a dedicated PTT button on the device will be a big plus as PTT-over-FirstNet becomes more prevalent for “interoperability between agencies” push-to-talk (not to replace LMR push-to-talk). 

Reading the specifications for phones, and the DuraForce is no exception, it appears that even though the device is aimed at public-safety grade markets, it still needs to include features that will keep it on a par with consumer-only devices. Front and rear cameras, 64 GB of read-only memory, 4 GB of random-access memory, 21 hours of battery life, and more. However, it is the accessories that caught my attention at both the APCO and IACP conferences.

The DuraForce I received came with only a few of the available add-ons. One is a rugged clamshell case that fully surrounds the phone. Another case has a beltclip to which options can be attached. One option is an external battery that will charge the main battery when needed. This is important if the phone will also be used as a body-worn camera as some software companies now suggest. When running the phone in bodycam mode there must be a way to recharge the phone between shifts. Kyocera has done a good job with this phone and the accessories that come with it. I will share my impressions with you as I use it more and try out more accessories. 

I still have more devices in my shop including a Cradlepoint dual-SIM modem I need to install temporarily in my car, a GPS Lockbox vehicle mount for tablets that adds push-to-talk and an amplified speaker, the Motorola LEX, and a few more. At the moment, my primary phone is an iPhone. I finally gave up my last BlackBerry, the last two I have were not made by BlackBerry but rather by an overseas vendor that tried its best to get it right, but Android on a BlackBerry-like device simply did not feel right to me. In the future, I will be trying a number of different phones.

Winding Down

I am still in search of the ultimate FirstNet device. The needs of those who run into harm’s way are much different from others in the public-safety community so their device requirements are different. I keep telling phone vendors that during an incident, personnel on the front lines for public safety will not give serious consideration to using a device that requires two hands to operate. Apparently, phone vendors either don’t agree or don’t know how to design a one-handed device. Sitting in a vehicle before or after incidents reviewing information or preparing to complete reports is not the same as being on the ground and not knowing what lies ahead. Perhaps heads-up displays could be used, but they could become a distraction. Perhaps voice commands could be used, although the voice systems would have to handle voice better than either Android or iPhone systems today. Whenever I try to dictate a text message, I have to spend as much time correcting the errors than if I had simply typed it myself. Voice has to be 100%-reliable or it is worthless.

There are more LMR/LTE combination devices coming, but at the moment, I believe most are niche products because of their high cost. Over time, I expect pricing to come down as the technologies are harnessed to serve both technologies. I am not sure anyone can say what would be the ultimate device for public safety. As new devices come to market, we need feedback from those who will be using them every day. We will know a vendor got it right when field personnel are satisfied with the way the product works and how they interact with it. In a vision piece I wrote not long ago, I described the ultimate device this way: 

“If all these various types of communications are put together in a synergistic, IP-based system and field personnel carry devices that help them navigate to the specific network they need when they need it, public-safety communications will remain what it is today — a tool for public safety. Law enforcement, fire personnel, EMS and other first and even secondary responders can perform their tasks without having to think about which communications method is being used. The networks in concert will deliver the content to the appropriate people at the right time.”

I think we can reach this point, with some stumbles along the way. When public-safety responders don’t have to fiddle with a knob or control, carry two devices, or worry about being in range, and when we know the device will keep them connected someway, somehow, I think we will have found the holy grail of public-safety communications. I am looking forward to that day!

Until next week…

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

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