Public Safety Advocate: Marketing Products, Questions to Answer

As you read this Advocate, keep in mind that there are proven ways to bring new products and services to market. For example, once the cost to produce a product is known, product support costs are estimated, and a retail price is determined, profits are estimated. (Perhaps for both the company and the reseller.) As many who have developed products and services will tell you, this is the most difficult part of the process.

When it comes to public-safety communications today, too many federal agencies, organizations, and vendors are working on similar projects. Federal agencies seem to think throwing money at a problem is the solution. Few if any federally-funded development projects have resulted in a new product that solves a problem for public safety. Handing out $millions to small companies (that seem to be refunded every year) rarely ends up with viable products or services to solve a problem or add functionality to existing technologies. Why, then, are federal agencies so keen on funding companies that are developing products and services that are already well underway or already on the market? 

There are many examples of this type of outreach and funding starting with the Public Safety Communications Research Division (PSCR) of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). These two organizations and others are pushing the 3GPP standards body to write a standard for Push-To-Talk even though the 3GPP has never before worked on standards for an application. The 3GPP standard was late to be released, vendors were even slower to implement it and, as of today, this “standard” is not a standard since the majority of broadband public-safety users are already committed to other PTT applications. 

The standard was supposed to include off-network communications (simplex) so the 3GPP came up with “Proximity Services” (ProSe), which has basically been abandoned because it does not provide anywhere near the range necessary to reach into sub-basements, parking garages, and other hard-to-reach areas. 

Lastly, the 3GPP standard for interconnecting broadband-to-broadband systems and broadband-to-Land Mobile Radio (LMR) systems has finally been released. However, all it appears to do is add yet another layer to what PTT vendors have been implementing for several years for far less cost.

In all fairness, when the PSCR first proposed asking the 3GPP to develop a PTT standard, many in the public-safety community thought it was a good idea, and PSCR put a lot of effort into having the 3GPP put on the agenda and assigned to a working group. Perhaps because PTT is (was) so foreign to broadband networks, and network vendors make up a majority of the 3GPP, PSCR tried to make sure those working on the standard were versed in PTT. So far, the 3GPP’s work has not resulted in a truly viable standard that could be used nationwide.

Meanwhile, another federal agency has been sending $millions to a small company that is supposedly developing tools to provide broadband and LMR interoperability. Yet today, several vendors that have not received a dime from any federal agency have already developed a number of inexpensive and easy-to-implement products that have been in use for at least three years. 

Many vendors are working on similar products and services and plan to compete for market share. For example, one category of products includes Incident Command (IC) software for personnel in the field and those back at the Emergency Operations Center (EOC). Googling “incident command software” brings up a number of software packages designed for IC and dispatch. Most of these will run on a tablet and provide a number of layers for adding more information. For example, one layer shows where the incident is and which units are responding. Then there might be another layer showing where all fire hydrants near the scene are located, or one that shows where law enforcement has closed off intersections. Building plans, hazardous materials, and other layers including video of the scene can all be set up on the side of a touch-screen device and with the touch of a finger new layers can be added to the information already on the screen.

Developing products and then vying with others for market share has been a common practice for many years. Before a federal agency starts writing checks to a small company to produce a product and fund the company, it would behoove the agency to find out what is already in the works at commercial companies. If a vendor feels the need to invest in development of software when there are plenty of software packages in the marketplace, the vendor might be better advised to purchase the company that developed the software or the software could be licensed for resale.

The list of duplications of products and services goes on and on and it is not unusual for multiple vendors to develop their own versions. However, it is another thing for federal and other organizations to fund smaller companies to re-invent the wheel. With $millions invested, these companies will be able to make the product for years to come, add some bells and whistles that add no value or, from what I can tell, add unnecessary enhancements. 

I have compiled a list of what I think are the most important points:

  • Before You Design It
    • Do the proposed products solve an existing problem that affects multiple types of users?
    • Is it a neat device your smart engineers thought up and began working on without market testing or discussions?
    • If you chose “a” proceed, if you chose “b,” perhaps you need to re-evaluate what you base your new product decisions on.
  • Input and Feedback
    • Talk to users in the communities your product or service will be designed for and find out if it really will solve a current or future problem.
    • Do NOT hype an undeveloped product. I worked for a company early on that placed full-page ads for a new handheld radio. I pre-sold a bunch of them only to find that the ad was to judge product interest and not to sell products. After that, a number of steadfast customers began looking for other vendors.
  • Design, Build, and Beta Test
    • Nothing is more important than to beta test a new product with actual users. If possible, test with several groups of users: young and tech savvy, middle-aged but willing to try something new, and older users who are usually fixed in their ways. Do not simply hand out devices, make sure you contact the users and continue to update what they like and do not like.
    • Beware! If what you deliver is not exactly the product you have touted, you will probably lose those customers for good.
  • Service and Support
    • If the product or service is to be used in the trenches, the mean time between failures must be low.
    • When something needs service, it must happen quickly. If a vendor really wants to win points, it should stock additional product that can be tested and shipped out quickly to replace a defunct unit.
    • Service after the sale is critical and some vendors miss out on learning how to improve their product or service by not revisiting the customer after the product has been in use for a while.

Different Ways to Expand Your Product Line

For many years, public-safety Land Mobile Radio (LMR) has been a niche market with a limited number of vendors, many of which also provided products and services for business and industrial LMR users. Federal agencies have also been giving funds to public safety agencies to develop what they thought was a product the user community wanted. The best use of federal funding for LMR are grants to agencies to purchase upgrades to what they are already using or expanding their coverage area. These types of grants don’t go to a vendor to fund a new product or service, they go directly to the agency for products necessary for specific uses. 

Enter Broadband

Public safety began using broadband commercial services prior to the creation of FirstNet and now, in its fifth year of operation, FirstNet (Built with AT&T) has proven to be a huge success. One reason for this success is that devices that run on FirstNet are not niche market devices, they are the same as those used by millions of citizens. AT&T convinced commercial device vendors and others to include public-safety Band 14 in their devices to make them available to millions of consumers in addition to public safety. The volume of devices being sold has kept the prices low. FirstNet (Built with AT&T) used a totally different SIM card in devices designed to operate on FirstNet and AT&T broadband spectrum. The FirstNet law states that AT&T can share Band 14 with its commercial users when the band is not encumbered by public safety in a given area. 

As in the LMR-only days, vendors, federal agencies, and others are putting talent and money into products they believe will be welcomed by public safety. They are also shrewd enough to recognize when the same new features and functions will also be of interest to commercial broadband users.

If you have read this far, you may be thinking all is well in the design and development world for public-safety LMR, LTE, and soon 5G, and you would be partially correct.

Too Many Master Chefs, Not Enough Cooks, Oversight

When I think about the number of vendors, organizations, federal entities, and others pushing their favorite product ideas, I see a huge amount of money being lost and too many duplications of effort. I also remember products that have been funded over a period of years that never made it to market.

My partial list of agencies that fit this description includes but is not limited to the following:

The FirstNet Authority Research Lab; the FirstNet Public Safety Advisory Committee that reports to the FirstNet Authority board of directors; FirstNet (Built with AT&T); the Public Safety Communications Research group that is part of the National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST); NIST itself; DHS/CISA; the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA); the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and a few others that may be working on products and services in the background.

During the past month, I have been contacted by DHS/CISA, PSCR, the FirstNet lab in Boulder, NIST, FirstNet (Built with AT&T) and a number of commercial and public-safety vendors. All of these organizations are either well into product development or in the funding stages. 

Members of the Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC), the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC), and now the Public Safety Spectrum Alliance (PSSA) are either from the public-safety community or work very closely with public-safety. I view these three organizations as equally important when it comes to determining types of devices and services that will be beneficial to public safety.  

None of the companies developing products seem to have talked to any of the other companies working on the same products. In case after case, I can list duplicated product development projects and even finished product duplications on the market. Too often, those seeding companies to build the same device or system to solve the same problem are not aware of the work being done by others. 

This situation is not limited to public safety. Many will remember Bell Labs as a real think tank for product and service development that came up with some truly great products. Unfortunately, no one ever informed this group of truly smart engineers that the products they were designing had to sell for a reasonable price. Most of the work done by Bell Labs was never used commercially because while they were great, the products were too expensive. 

There is a lot of wasted effort and money and, I suspect, a number of million-dollar investments have been left in some lab on a shelf gathering dust.

There are ways to mitigate the cost of product development and taking products to market. While I sometimes pick on Motorola, I think this company understands how to stay relevant in this marketplace. If it believes a product it doesn’t make will be of interest to its market, Motorola finds the best company it can that is already selling the product and purchases the company. Over time, Motorola has sold off or closed some companies it has, acquired but many of its purchases have worked out. You might remember that Motorola bought “Twisted Pair,” a PTT vendor, and renamed the product WAVE. It also bought Kodiak networks, another PTT vendor, for what I consider a fire sale price, at least one console vendor, and a number of software companies. This appears to be one way to increase your installed base and to drive up revenue. If you don’t have something, find the best company that does and buy it.

Then there is the direction L3Harris has chosen. L3Harris is a member of a group of companies that have come together as an organization that does not own the companies. Instead, member companies designate each other as their preferred vendor for products they need in a bidding situation. 

I think development of a timeline would help reduce all this over-funding, over-designing, and over-hyping. With members drawn from the FirstNet Authority, its Boulder Research Center, the Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC), and/or the PSCR, a liaison committee could be formed. This committee would spend time with public-safety/first responders to develop a timeline for new products and services. Public safety would identify which products and services are needed first and what could wait until the following year or more.

Once this timeline is in place, the next step would be to find out what is being done by commercial and public safety entities to develop products identified as “cannot wait.” If no one is working on one of these products or services, it would be a good time to fund one or more companies to participate in product design and production stages. If there are vendors already working on devices and services that are close-in requirements, that would be a signal that federal agencies do not need to throw money at the product since it is already being developed and produced by private industry. 

Conclusions

Those working to provide public safety with new and better tools and services need to pay attention first to what public safety wants to see added to FirstNet soon, then further out. It would be very helpful if the organizations “helping” public safety could coordinate their efforts, stop throwing money away, and be smarter about who is developing what for how much. Having multiple vendors selling the same type of product is not a bad thing since it helps drive prices down. However, when federal agencies step in and start sending out checks for $millions to a company planning to develop a product already being used by public safety or being developed by the vendor community, federal funding is not necessary. 

From my vantage point, it appears as though the PSCR is focused on more futuristic things, which is good, but right now we need to fill the gaps identified by public safety and put products and services on the market that will solve problems they are encountering in the field.

Bottom line: Let the public-safety community drive where the research and dollars go to best help our first responders in the field and keep them and all citizens safer.

Winding Down (or perhaps the continuation of the above)

I have listed items below that I believe are of great importance to the public-safety community. I also think those who have some control over product and service development and the public-safety community should sit down with this list, perhaps expand it, and put together a timeline that would be divided into sections:

  • Most Critical and Time-Sensitive:
    • Critical 
    • Moderate importance
    • Future products and services 
  • My List to Start the Chart Includes:
    • Nationwide PTT over FirstNet
    • FirstNet to LMR PTT integration
    • Application data files that can be delivered on-demand to the appropriate device(s) in the appropriate format
    • NG9-1-1. I would say this one is in progress yet again.
    • In-building Public Safety Broadband developed and implemented with the Safer Building Coalition
    • High-Power devices that could be hand-carried 
    • More deployables and deployables that will include 4G, 5G, and Wi-Fi
    • Devices
      •  Hardened
      •  FirstNet and LMR-Capable
      •  Wearable Alarms            
      • First for training and then in the field

There are many more public-safety wants and needs but I did not delve into such issues as new types of software, and convergence of computer-aided-dispatch databases so they can be shared and are of value for a variety of projects.

If you would like to add to this list, let me know. I will be watching to see if people can plan together, work together, and provide public safety with new and better hardware and software to put into the hands of our first responders.

Until next week

Andrew M. Seybold©2022

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