Last week marks the two-year anniversary of the FirstNet award to AT&T. It also marks a full year since the Public Safety core (heart of the network) was turned on. If you map this two-year anniversary against the FirstNet Authority Operational Capability (IOC) description of the project, last week also marked the end of IOC-3, which was expected to be completed by the end of twenty-four months.
IOC-3 contains many milestones in and of itself. For example, by the end of IOC-3, the local control application (portal) should be complete, the core should be complete, devices Phase 3 should be complete, and achievement of 50-percent of contractor’s IOC-5 public safety device connection target should be attained. This last point is not discernable from the outside since FirstNet the Authority did not specify the number of connections, rather the number was determined by each bidder. However, it appears to me, like with most of the IOC-3 requirements, FirstNet (Built with AT&T) has already blown past IOC-5 in addition to most of the IOC-3 requirements.
There still remain issues, especially concerning coverage as public safety agencies continue to monitor FirstNet progress. Once more, I need to remind people that had AT&T not offered up all of its existing LTE spectrum and then begun augmenting it with public safety Band 14 spectrum, and a bidder had simply planned on building out the entire network on Band 14, we would not yet have attained today’s level of coverage nor would we have pre-emption except on Band 14. So, while there are still some issues with coverage, much of what we have today was not even planned to be available until one, two, or even three years further down the road.
The last numbers I have seen show there are now more than 6,500 agencies on FirstNet, either as their prime broadband network or in a testing phase. Further indication of this was evident in last week’s State of Arizona Broadband (FirstNet) event. Attendees were largely from the public safety community—some were already using FirstNet and some were there to learn more about FirstNet. This indicates that interest in FirstNet is high and as you saw from our coverage maps last week, coverage where we were in Arizona, California, and Nevada is better than many people thought it would be only two years into the contract award.
FirstNet (Built with AT&T) AnnouncementsFirstNet made some announcements last week that coincide with the two-year anniversary. The first is about a new application that will become available later this year that will enable extended primary users to request priority uplift during an incident. You might remember, extended primary users are permitted on the FirstNet system but without pre-emption, basically on a secondary user basis. This class of user includes utilities, and others needed to augment first responders. However, it has always been planned that during an incident where, for example, power needs to be disconnected to provide safe access, power company personnel and vehicles responding to the incident can be uplifted from extended primary to full primary for the duration of the incident. Such an application will make it much easier to determine which users need to be uplifted.
The next big announcement is something the Public Safety Advisory Committee for the FirstNet Authority board has been insistent on since its inception—single-sign-on. This means once users are signed on, their access to other applications and information sources will be automatically available without having to sign in to yet another application or database. This, I am told, will require some applications already on FirstNet to be modified to work under single-sign-on. Once they are modified, they will save precious time during incidents. The next subject of the press release was the announcement that there are more than sixty public safety-specific applications in the FirstNet store with more on the way. There is also an Application Programming Interface (API) that, in some cases, will enable applications to modify their own priority under certain circumstances.
There do appear to be some IOC-3 requirements that have not yet been implemented. However, looking at the list, it appears the FirstNet Authority made some assumptions about the status of the 3GPP LTE releases that have not proven to be correct. To my knowledge, among the goals that have not been implemented or fully implemented, are the requirement for Mission Critical PTT, Multi-Cast Services (eMBMS), and proximity services (off-network PTT and push-to-data). Again, off-network PTT or ProSe is not at all what is needed by the public safety community. Having an LTE device that can talk to another LTE device when they are out of coverage is the goal of ProSe. Yet there is a huge difference between two LTE devices with embedded antennas and a radio power level of ¼ watt trying to provide the same services simplex over Land Mobile Radio (LMR) provides today using 2-5-watt portable radios with externally mounted antennas.
From what I can see, the number of devices available for FirstNet users is above the expectation level for the end of year two, and coverage is far beyond year two requirements that were based on a Band 14-only roll-out. Going through the rest of the IOC-3 list, all items with the exception of those detailed above appear to be well into IOC-4 or even IOC-5 levels of completion. Yes, there is more work to do, but FirstNet (Built with AT&T) and the FirstNet Authority are back to working together to make this the best possible network for the public safety community.
Fifth-generation wireless broadband is being rolled out and will continue being rolled out over the next three to four years. AT&T has already stated that as it rolls out 5G with its customers, public safety will also be provided with 5G access but patience will be required since a number of 5G issues need to be resolved. For example, since a lot of the 5G spectrum is being auctioned in the United States, will only the winning bidder have access to the spectrum it paid for at auction or will the industry decide spectrum slicing (sharing) is needed? What about locations? The federal government, states, and locals all want a say in what these little cells look like and where they can be placed. This too goes back to spectrum sharing. If four vendors are capable of offering 5G services in a given city, does that mean there will be four poles in rights-of-ways every block so all four vendors can compete?
This will all work itself out over time I am sure. In the meantime, it appears that different parts of the United States will have different levels of 5G service for the next few years at least. Will 5G be used in rural areas to provide high-speed Internet as well as in the major metro areas? To me, what makes sense is to use a combination of fiber, LTE, and 5G in various configurations in rural areas. That again takes us back to the fact that there is no single entity to undertake the task of coordinating bridging the digital divide.
These next few years will be interesting I am sure. FirstNet will continue to build out, public safety users will find FirstNet covers where they need coverage, 5G will be deployed, and more fiber will be deployed with small cells since it is critical to have sufficient backhaul in place to serve these new high-capacity, high-speed nodes.
While we are looking at FirstNet advances over the last two years and what is ahead for public safety communications, we should be working toward solving some of the remaining issues. First is installation of Next Generation 9-1-1 systems. NG911 is the citizen’s pipe to send more and better information to the Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) and then on to dispatch and the field. Sending a picture of the license plate from a hit-and-run vehicle will lead to a quicker arrest, sending a video of a robbery in progress that is forwarded to responding units will result in solving the crime sooner, and someone hiding in a closet sending a text message about an intruder in their house will result in a faster response without exposing him/her to being heard talking on the phone. NG911 is what is needed to complete communications capabilities for public safety.
Then is the issue of the T-Band. In 2012 when the U.S. Congress attached what is now known as Title VI to the Tax Relief Bill signed into law in February of that year, Congress believed the T-Band spectrum in the 470-512-MHz band, which is heavily used by public safety and business users in eleven major metro areas, had to be returned to the FCC by 2022. The law does not provide any additional spectrum to relocate these users, nor does it make funds available for the move.
At the time, Congress believed this spectrum, which is slightly different in most of the eleven metro areas, would be worth a fortune. As it turns out, with the advent of HDTV, the ability to use a single old TV channel for three or more HDTV channels, and that 5G is what network operators believe is their future, the value of the T-Band is now just about zero. Even so, it is very important to the eleven areas of the country that are still using it.
Additional issues threaten other portions of both the public safety spectrum and spectrum used by others. Today’s FCC sees $pectrum, while the rest of us see Spectrum. The FCC also sees $pectrum where many of us see potential for interference and spectrum noise that does and will affect wireless communications. The National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA), Congress, and the FCC continue talking about sweeping changes in how spectrum is allocated and to whom. However, as long as those in Washington continue to see $pectrum, there will be major problems with keeping our finite spectrum resources clear of interference and noise from other users.
Public safety communications is essential to all of us, NG911, land mobile radio, and FirstNet are keys to providing those who protect and serve with the communications tools they need to save lives (including their own) and protect property. We have come a long way since the FirstNet Authority awarded the contract to AT&T only two short years ago. Yet it has taken thirteen years to reach this point from the day in 2006 when Morgan O’Brien stood on a stage in Las Vegas and declared public safety needed a nationwide broadband system. Let’s keep this new momentum going!
Andrew M. Seybold
©2019, Andrew Seybold, Inc.