Public Safety Advocate: Looking Forward to 2019

Happy New Year to all of you! Hopefully, 2019 will be a great year for all of us including the public safety community of dispatchers, fire, EMS, and law enforcement personnel. 

At the end of each year and the beginning of the next year there are many articles, stories, and blogs looking back and then looking forward. This week’s Advocate is about looking forward through to the end of 2019. Technology and politics move too quickly to predict what will come beyond that. 

As we enter 2019, January is month twenty-three of the FirstNet contract with AT&T. There are two FirstNets, one being the FirstNet Authority with a reconstructed board of directors and an acting CEO who many of us hope will soon lose the “acting” in the title. Then there is the AT&T FirstNet referred to as “FirstNet (Built with AT&T)”. This second FirstNet is ahead of schedule according to the RFP that was issued by FirstNet the Authority and it appears as though it will stay ahead during all of 2019.

Land Mobile Radio

Meanwhile, there are new and updated Land Mobile Radio (LMR) systems that were built in 2018 and more are already scheduled for 2019. Not only are P25 systems being deployed, analog systems are being upgraded, perhaps staying with analog only or moving to a combination of P25 and analog. Several P25 systems stand out as examples of more redundant, nearer to public safety-grade than most P25 systems. The difference is that these networks do not have a central core or “brain,” rather the brains of the network are placed at each site and sometimes redundant cores are used at each site to add yet another layer of redundancy. Further, these systems are IP-based and as I mentioned last year, we will ultimately have IP back-ends for NG 9-1-1 and LMR, meaning the FirstNet network can help greatly in providing a homogenized communications platform for public safety.

For 2019 I expect (hope) more systems take on the architecture outlined above, and that elected officials who control the purse strings come to realize that both LMR and FirstNet need to be embraced to provide public safety with more capabilities than ever before. LMR Push-To-Talk (PTT), especially off-network push-to-talk or simplex unit-to-unit and one-unit-to-many, will remain an extremely important piece of the communications landscape. 

I also believe with the various committees working on the integration of PTT over FirstNet and PTT over LMR they will be integrated on an as-needed basis. FirstNet makes PTT interoperability across multiple agencies workable but it is vital for us to develop interfaces between LMR and FirstNet correctly and make them available at a sensible price to encourage more agencies to interconnect their LMR systems to FirstNet on an as-needed basis.

A few smaller agencies purchased DMR or Moto-Turbo systems because they could not afford the cost of P25. These systems still provide analog communications and LMR interoperability channels on all the current LMR bands and should continue with analog as the least common denominator. The year 2019 will not be the year all of public safety converts its LMR systems to P25.

This has to be the year when Congress passes a bill to keep T-Band (470-512 MHz) users on these channels. Both public safety and the business users on this segment of spectrum have nowhere else to go, even with the opening of new 800-MHz channels and narrowbanding, which has been implemented in the 700-MHz public safety spectrum. At this point, most if not all channels are being used by other agencies in the area. We need to keep the pressure on Congress. The International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and LA County and City have been pushing this cause for years. I was pleased to see that in 2018 the International Association of Police Chiefs (IACP) also endorsed keeping the T-band for the eleven major metro areas that rely on it and use it heavily. The start of the year and new members of both houses of Congress makes this a great time to let your voices be heard in DC. Save the T-Band and while we are at it, leave the 4.9-GHz public safety band alone. This spectrum is vital for point-to-point video transmission among other things.

FirstNet

As mentioned, January 2019 is month twenty-three in the sixty-month roll-out schedule, which is the first part of the twenty-five-year commitment by AT&T. At its last board meeting, FirstNet the Authority discussed future upgrades to the network and funding them from payments received for secondary use of the spectrum by AT&T. This could mean additional resources to apply to the network. 

There is still a lot of work to do. FirstNet (Built with AT&T) is building out more towers (cell sites), expanding Band 14 coverage, and last month rolled out 5G to the home in a number of cities. According to promises, we will see more of the same in 2019, and according to several handset vendors, 5G-capable devices will be released in 2019. FirstNet (Built with AT&T) has stated that any addition to its network such as more LTE and 5G will automatically become part of the FirstNet network.

What I Expect to See Happening in 2019

First is the promised Mission-Critical Push-To-Talk (MCPTT) coming to FirstNet. If it does, it will be the first iteration of MCPTT and tires will have to be kicked in non-emergency use of MCPTT to determine what needs to be added, what works well, and what does not. The other side of this is that AT&T already has three or four PTT vendors on FirstNet (Built with AT&T) including Kodiak (now Motorola), ESChat, and Samsung, with a rumored fourth provider being tested now. Exactly how many different flavors of PTT should FirstNet (Built with AT&T) support? The Tetra + Critical Communications Association (TCCA) has certified more than thirty PTT providers that meet mission-critical standards. 

I believe more than five PTT providers on FirstNet (Built with AT&T) is still too many but if that is what it decides (hopefully in conjunction with the public safety community), that will be the number. At the moment, all is quiet on the PTT front from FirstNet (Built with AT&T) so the matter remains up in the air. My best guess is that by the end of 2019 we still will not have a final version of MCPTT on the network and even if all five PTT vendors are able to connect to the other four when first launched, how long will it be before these vendors begin adding bells and whistles to their flavor of MCPTT that make it better (perhaps) but different from what was originally released. So, we may be creating yet more incompatibility in the name of standards. There are plenty of previous models to look at including the early to mid-life of P25 when features and functions were introduced to make sure other vendors could not sell into the new P25 system. 

There is another issue very few people are addressing. When PTT over FirstNet is common and when it is used at an incident, today the number of PTT devices within a cell sector will have an effect on data and video traffic. Most PTT devices need to be able to communicate with FirstNet to remain in operational mode for when they are needed. However, the more devices there are in a cell sector, the less data and video capacity there is in that cell sector. FirstNet (Built with AT&T) should not experience this problem often because the network is not limited to Band 14, it also includes all of AT&T’s LTE and 5G spectrum. The final solution to this issue is to implement an LTE technology known as multi-cast where a single PTT, video, or data stream can be sent to multiple devices simultaneously. Multi-cast is a vital resource if dispatching is to be handled over FirstNet at some point in time. It is also important for PTT in congested cells.

Today’s dispatches are made on LMR voice with its one-to-many capability so in addition to the assigned units, other units in the area are aware of the incident and, depending on the type of call, a few other units might move closer to the address. Yes, other data is sent to mobile data terminals but it is still sequential in nature. 

My final point about Mission Critical PTT (I am not a fan of this nomenclature) is that, if I remember correctly, to meet the MCPTT specs, the PTT vendor must be hosted on the network offering the services. If this is true, will FirstNet (Built with AT&T) support five different back-ends or will it offer a common back-end that allows all vendors to be hosted? 

Work is ongoing in the 3GPP standards body, which is mainly concerned with commercial networks, and the Public Safety Technical Alliance (PST), which has two groups up and running. One is looking at MCPTT on FirstNet and the other is looking at how to provide seamless interconnections between analog and digital LMR systems to FirstNet (Built with AT&T). Both of these groups are working diligently on these issues. It should be noted that the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) has already issued papers on these subjects but the PST alliance is working on implementation strategies that, hopefully, can be made available in a short timeframe.

Simplex/Talk-Around PTT

The 3GPP has come up with Proximity Services (ProSe) to address simplex/talk-around PTT. At the moment, I believe this is dead on arrival for public safety. That does not mean ProSe may not be of interest to consumers for sharing photos and other things when they are in close proximity. However, for public safety use today, ProSe is not anywhere near what is required. FirstNet and other commercial devices use antennas inside the devices with a transmit power of 250 MW or ¼ watt, thus the range of these units will be short. ProSe does include a way to use a device between two other devices as an automatic relay but in public safety circles, those in the field don’t usually remain in one location very long. Even if the devices are capable of 1.25 watts of transmit power permitted in Band 14, the issues of battery life and range will still be questionable. 

Over the years, several companies have looked at alternatives for LMR simplex. The first was Nextel, which was heavy into PTT as well as all cellular services of the day. Sometime in the late 2010s, Nextel began offering what it called direct talk on some of its phones. It was using spectrum in the 900-MHz unlicensed or ISM band and Nextel advertised the power out as 700 MW or 0.7 watts of power. While this is three times the power of a normal cell phone today, it still fell far short of the distances required by public safety.

Now we are hearing rumors that Sonim will be building a sled that slides onto its public safety phone on the same 900-MHz spectrum. The good news is that we are also hearing Sonim will be building or obtaining a sled for LMR simplex communications that has potential. In the meantime, LMR devices such as the Harris XL-200 with all four public safety LMR bands plus FirstNet capability are in the marketplace. During 2019, I expect to see many more integrated solutions as vendors come to understand that ProSe is not the answer nor is the 900-MHz unlicensed band. Keeping simplex on LMR seems to be the winning alternative.

I will go back to my set of tests for what I consider to be the minimum requirements for unit-to-unit and one-unit-to-many direct communications. At street-level in a major metro area, units six blocks apart should be able to communicate with no problem. Next is a unit on the street and one in a sub-basement or underground parking garage. Here, too, these units should be able to communicate, and finally, a unit on the street talking to a unit on the top floor of a high-rise building with the high-rise unit as far away from the street as possible. I am sure other tests are needed for suburban and rural use but this is a good start. When I see devices that meet these requirements and truly replace LMR simplex, regardless of the technology used, then I will believe that perhaps there is something better. Until then, I am sticking with my comments that simplex LMR is the best way to communicate. 

There is also hope that 2019 will see some major wins when it comes to location services. The FCC’s watered-down requirements for citizens calling 9-1-1 simply do not work for the public safety community. Testing is ongoing for inbuilding and the capability to measure height off the ground. The goal is to find a technology or a combination of technologies that will indicate the location of a person on the exact floor within close proximity to where he/she is. This is a life-saver not only for citizens, it is especially important for public safety so those in danger inside a structure can be warned to leave or can be found by a rescue team if needed.

Devices and Applications

As more and more agencies join FirstNet and as other countries roll out their broadband public safety spectrum this year, I hope to see more purpose-built devices and some must-have software applications. To me, at this point in development, what is needed are FirstNet devices that can be referred to and perhaps used with a single hand on the device so public safety personnel can keep their other hand free, which is what they want. It appears to me as though those responding to an incident can use a FirstNet device to obtain the latest information on the scene and know what to expect on arrival. Once on the scene, it might serve for a while as a view-only device to assist responders at the incident. Before and after incidents, they can sit in their vehicles and post their reports along with pictures and other data. However, during the actual incident, I think a view-only approach makes sense at this point.

Last month I wrote about the lack of compelling applications. I believe FirstNet (Built with AT&T) has streamlined the way applications are reviewed and tested making it easier and less expensive for smaller developers and we will start seeing some really great applications materializing. The usual report writing and form completions are available today. Inspectors with a tablet can easily check the boxes as they review a building or site and then add comments at the end. Traffic reports are being written in the field and submitted in a much more timely fashion, and a lot of work is being done in the area of building plans, blueprints, and hazard call-outs where all of these can be quite helpful. I wonder and hope that voice commands that can be heard and acted on in the harsh noise environment at an incident will become available.

Winding Down

My wish list: 2019 will be a banner year for FirstNet (Built with AT&T) as well as for upgraded and new land mobile radio systems; the number of agencies now signed up will double; FirstNet (Built with AT&T) will provide coverage where it has been lacking; FirstNet users will start using FirstNet for much more than voice (which FirstNet (Built with AT&T) told the FirstNet Authority was the major application being used on FirstNet). 

The effort to create FirstNet, the cost to AT&T to build it, and what the network offers in terms of data and video can provide much more information in a shorter time than voice in some instances. However, as NG 9-1-1 comes online and can be married to FirstNet, the value of the network will increase significantly. Let’s all make 2019 the year we provide tighter integration of NG 9-1-1 and LMR, and FirstNet will provide a more complete communications experience for those in the field. 

Andrew M. Seybold
©2019 Andrew Seybold, Inc.

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