Public Safety Advocate: Month-End Miscellany

The first order of business this week is to give a shout out on behalf of all those who have given their lives for our freedom, military and first responders alike. I wish it was not necessary, but they did make the ultimate sacrifice for us, so this week especially, it is time to stop what we are doing, even if only for a few moments, and give thanks for each and every one of them.

Next, I want to give a shout out to all the first responders and scores of volunteers assisting them in what seems to be a never-ending series of tornadoes and floods across much of this nation. I have watched reports of numerous water rescues and UAV (drone) views of utter devastation from tornadoes. In the years I spent in the Cincinnati area working for General Electric Mobile Radio, I remember all too well the day the area was hit with more than seventeen tornadoes. My car, a new car GE leased for me, was parked in front of a GE two-way radio dealer. When we came out, it looked like it had been hit by rocks, not hail. 

I reported to my fire department and my amateur radio net and proceeded to work for the next few days trying to find survivors. It was an experience I will never forget. Those in the Midwest are dealing with far too many similar situations. I only hope there is a break for them in the near future.

The Black SIM

Last week I read an article about the public safety “Black SIM” and there is a news item presented on allthingsfirstnet.com. The Black SIM lets the network know that the device containing this SIM is a public safety device and the article is correct that public safety has absolute priority on FirstNet (Built with AT&T). However, it is important to understand that before AT&T won the bid for FirstNet, we assumed the network would consist of only Band 14, the 20 MHz of spectrum assigned to public safety by Congress and the FCC. We also assumed the selected partner would be using Band 14 for its own customers when it is not being used by public safety, so public safety must have priority at all times. 

When AT&T won the bid, we learned FirstNet would include all AT&T LTE spectrum, not simply the 20 MHz of Band 14. Later, AT&T told us as its 5G systems are rolled out they too will be made available to public safety. This makes a huge difference in the amount of spectrum available for public safety during incidents and it dramatically decreases the occurrences, if any, of AT&T’s regular customers being refused service during a major incident. This could still happen, but I think the likelihood of slowing customers’ data rates or refusal of service will be slim under normal conditions.

The history of the Black SIM goes back to pre-FirstNet days. Several committees, including the APCO broadband committee (which unfortunately is no more) and one for early adopters based on NTIA funding, studied the need for a special SIM for public safety. Bill Schier, now with FirstNet the Authority, chaired the APCO broadband committee and I had the privilege of serving as vice-chair under his leadership. One of the items we decided, along with basically all the committees, was that public safety would need its own Product Lifestyle Management ID (PLM-ID), an assigned network-specific code. Every network in the world has at least one PLM-ID that identifies a user’s home network. This becomes especially important during an incident because with the special PLM-ID for public safety, those who qualify for the “Black SIM” are known to the network and given all the priorities afforded public safety users. 

After a lot of footwork, many forms to fill out, and numerous conference calls we obtained a PLM-ID specifically for FirstNet through the Automatic Terminal Information Service (ATIS). The IMSI standard identifier for the United States is made up of fifteen digits — the first three designate the Mobile Country Code (MCC), the second three the Mobile Network Code (MNC), and the final nine the Mobile Station Identification Number (MSIN). We tried to take this further and at one point an experienced consultant took this project under her wing and began working on organizing the last nine digits to follow the PLM-ID in a way that would identify the specific unit.

The plan was that these last nine digits would identify each device at least to its state level. Some thought we could go even further and go down to the agency level but the spreadsheets grew to be gigantic. Others were opposed to this idea and thought after a few years, agency IDs would not be cancelled or moved when appropriate. While these ideas were finally scrapped, it was certainly an interesting exercise that proved we did not understand as much about how networks operate and PLM-ID codes as we thought. Today the PLM-ID number is controlled by FirstNet (Built with AT&T) but I still wonder what would have been had the group working on extended IDs been successful.

LMR to LTE Push-To-Talk 

I was about to write this section with a report on the great work being done by the Public Safety Technology Alliance (PSTA) when my Google Alert brought me news that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology just awarded Catalyst a $1.0 million Phase II SBIR contract. Now we have a whole bunch of organizations working on the same issue and looking at it in different ways. 

During the last PSTA LMR/LTE integration committee meeting, we hashed out final or near-final recommendations to be sent to the board for approval. Once approved, I am certain there will be a release of some form describing our work and our outcome. Meanwhile, we have PSTA recommendations, activity within the 3GPP, and efforts by at least one more standards body. To me, it appears most of the energies assume P25 trunked networks are in the majority. This would mean Inter-Switching System Interface (ISSI) would be the “standard interface” for P25 trunked systems. However, there are other ways to connect P25 trunked systems to FirstNet that do not require ISSI. If you have to purchase your ISSI from the same vendor that provided your Land Mobile Radio (LMR) system, you might be in for a real shock when you discover pricing could be $500K or more. 

Other vendors offer ISSI solutions for less than $50K, and some Push-To-Talk (PTT) vendors have learned how to integrate P25 trunked systems with FirstNet without ISSI. In reality, we have LMR systems that are P25 conventional, some Digital Mobile Radio (DMR) or Mototrbo systems, and a large chunk of systems, especially in smaller departments that are and will remain analog for many years to come. We need to provide solutions so these different types of systems can be interconnected with FirstNet. The Zetron console that was demonstrated at a recent show is an option that permits ESChat to be interconnected to analog FM, both P25 conventional and P25 trunked, or all three.

I am concerned about the way in which integration methods are taking shape because smaller agencies that remain analog FM users will likely be left out of the LMR-to-LTE integration rush. Frankly, these agencies tend to need FirstNet integration more than larger agencies. Because they are smaller does not mean they will not be called in during an incident that requires outside assistance. If they are able to integrate their LMR to FirstNet, incoming units from other jurisdictions will be able to communicate with the department calling for assistance as they are in route, receiving orders and better understanding conditions.

I know I often dig into the past, but sometimes it makes sense. In this case, I want to quote Scott McNealy, founder of Sun Microsystems. Scott used to say a standard is only a standard when people use it. I think this point is sometimes lost on those developing “standards” for public safety. Many of these people mean well but don’t have the experience or expertise to truly understand what public safety needs. 

The primary concern is that a standard must be simple to use. As an example, Motorola was the company to finally develop a sixteen-channel handheld. It was only sixteen channels because that was the maximum that could be accommodated with an existing switch that was small enough to fit in the available space. Over the years, public safety personnel have learned to change channels by counting clicks. Without looking at the radio, they turn the knob counterclockwise until it stops (at one) and then count forward until they reach the desired channel number, say eight, and they know they are on the correct channel. No eyes, one hand, and it works! 

Sometimes “experts” tend to over-engineer products. Instead of finding out what is needed and why, they try to put the entire technical universe into one creation. The result might be dual-mission devices similar to LMR and LTE in the same device. (This is not always a bad thing as long as the device does not become too complicated to use. There are now several LMR/LTE devices on the market with more coming.) In any event, I think those attempting to define standards need to take a step back and spend time learning about problems that need fixing instead of what whizbang new device they can invent.

I am not sure how all this will work itself out. However, it is becoming apparent to me that the LMR/LTE integration piece is being worked on by so many organizations we are likely to not find what is really needed. When I joined the PSTA and the LMR/LTE integration committee, I was not contemplating a deep dive into the various “standards” or what needed to be added to them. I envisioned the output to be a concise two-page (no more) informational sheet along this line:

  • If you have a P25 trunked radio system that already includes ISSI, move forward with ISSI integration
  • If you have a P25 trunked radio system without ISSI, consider the following
    • Purchase ISSI from a vendor that offers it
    • Use a technology available from a PTT provider instead of ISSI
    • Consider using a Digital Fixed Station Interface (DFSI) with the understanding it needs some extensions to provide all services available with ISSI
    • Use Radio over IP (RoIP) as a 4-wire interface between the LMR and LTE network 
  • If you have a P25 conventional system
    • Consider DFSI with future extensions
    • Consider RoIP with future extensions
  • For Analog FM consider using
    • DFSI
    • RoIP
  • For DMR/Mototrbo
    • DFSI
    • RoIP
  • No issues with standards, no complicated comments such as, “except this” or “except that.” 

Talk to more than one vendor that has completed an integration for your type of LMR system and acquire the best pricing and options for ongoing upgrades. You can also talk to agencies that have integrated their systems and can share their experiences with you (e.g., the City of Mesa, AZ, has completed its integration using ISSI). It isn’t necessary to have every capability between the two networks on day one, but you do need to ensure you can add functionality as you move forward.

My final comment is that most LMR/LTE integration systems are turned on and off via the dispatch center on orders from the field, which makes sense. However, if this is the only way your system will be turned on and off, you need to train everyone in the process so all personnel responsible for this operation know what they are doing and don’t have to fumble around trying to remember how. I, for one, believe in having this function available via the broadband network using touchtones to enable/disable the feature.

Winding Down

We are still not sure of what the rural broadband grants will cover and where the opportunities will lie. We know the House has passed a bill creating a way to put all the grants and plans together under a single new department. We also know a member of the House has formed a broadband committee and the broadband bill in the Senate has been sent to committee (where it died last time). Hopefully we can persuade enough people to put pressure on their Senators to move the bill forward and have it signed. 

A few weeks ago, there was bi-partisan talk about a plan to carry out what needs to be done to address the state of our nation’s infrastructure. Part of this funding was always to include rural broadband. Unfortunately, this potential work project has been scrapped (hopefully to be revived in a little while?). With all this uncertainty, if we are to take broadband to rural America, we will have to find ways to do so with or without the assistance of Congress or the Executive Branch. This makes it more difficult but not impossible. Many small companies are already providing rural broadband, T-Mobile/Sprint are promising (or over promising) to solve the rural broadband issue, and the bill in the Senate is still alive at this point. 

Having been addressing the need for rural broadband since 2010, I have found many people agree it is needed and we have to do something about it. Yet the same people qualify this by saying we can only move ahead if we use their idea of how it should be accomplished. In some cases, they mean fiber to the home, which is too expensive, or they mean apply for grants but once the network is built we won’t help you fund its continued operation. Others say a rural broadband solution is simply too complicated. None of these are acceptable answers! 

FirstNet (Built with AT&T) is required by contract to provide rural broadband coverage with the network and FirstNet the Authority is the biggest and best example of a public/private partnership. I suggest we should be using this model to provide rural broadband coverage. I am not saying to simply add to the FirstNet contract, I am proposing that the FirstNet approach as a model for other ventures can and should be successful.

We can wait for Congress, the FCC, or the Executive Branch. We could wait for the 18,000 little LEOs intended to beam Internet down to every inch of the world by at least four competing companies. Or we can decide none of this will happen in a suitable timeframe, figure it out ourselves, and make it work. This is the end of the First Quarter of 2019 and we have three more quarters ahead of us this year. FirstNet is well ahead of its commitment to the FirstNet Authority and Washington is way behind in making any progress. Let’s see what we can achieve in spite of such a lack of support.

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

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