I am disappointed that I cannot find the archived article I wrote a number of years ago and published on April Fool’s Day. I had described how I was at a restaurant in Silicon Valley and at the table next to me were some Microsoft and FCC executives. I reported that they were discussing how Microsoft could buy the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and have access to all the spectrum the FCC controlled. The article went into detail and some readers fell for it. This year I will be sticking to facts and truth!
More IWCE 2022
As I said last week, it was great to be able to attend IWCE again. Yes, the number of attendees and exhibitors were down from pre-Covid years but I am confident that next year, unless there is yet another outbreak of the virus, IWCE should be back where it was a few years and perhaps larger.
This year, both the FirstNet Authority and FirstNet (Built with AT&T) were more visible and active than ever. In the FirstNet (Built with AT&T) booth, there were demonstrations of new devices and products that are either just entering the market or will be soon.
For example, Assured Wireless, the company that builds high-power devices for use on FirstNet Band 14 spectrum, was showing its new cell site in a suitcase and Rescue 42 brought one of its small, easily-deployed cell sites. However, the device that caught my eye looks like a flat panel on a stand but it is actually a fully-functional 5G system. When it becomes available, it will enable 5G deployments in command vehicles, inside businesses, and in areas where there is no coverage today.
As mentioned last week, a number of vendors are claiming they can offer a fully (well almost) compliant version of the 3GPP standard for “Mission Critical” Push-To-Talk (PTT) even though ProSe (simplex) is still not available and probably won’t be for a long time. However, today there are a limited number of ways in which MCPTT can be interfaced with LMR PTT and Apple has not yet said it will include MCPTT capabilities in its devices even though iOS devices are plentiful on FirstNet. According to the results of our survey of the public-safety community indicated that only 30-percent of them will wait for the 3GPP flavor of PTT rather than use what is already certified and available today on FirstNet.
I was also surprised to find some people representing public-safety agencies who firmly believe LMR is going away soon and FirstNet will be all they need. I have to assume that within their department they are not using simplex for any of their operations or they would understand that regardless of how good the 3GPP standard for PTT is today, it does not nor will it well into the future, provide any type of off-network (simplex) communications that most agencies find to be a vital communications tool.
Unfortunately, I had to miss a number of panels either because I was in meetings or participating in panels scheduled for the same time. I especially want to hear the FirstNet Authority recap of its first ten years so I am glad the IWCE recorded the sessions and is making them available on its website.
In future Advocates, I will be looking at some new products that were shown at IWCE 2022 including the Siyata Mobile SD-7 IoT (Internet of Things) device. I think this is a good product for some users that are more interested in PTT services over FirstNet than anything else and perhaps it might be a replacement for pagers typically worn by volunteer firefighters. I will have more to say after I receive my SD-7 to run through its paces.
Over the years, I have written a number of articles in the Advocate and elsewhere about the long and arduous task of providing broadband/Internet for all. Recently, Congress set aside funds to once and for all to close the digital divide and deliver broadband and Internet to everyone within the United States.
The set-aside is $65 Billion over and above what the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), FCC, Agriculture, and other federal agencies have already provided in the way of grants and loans. It is also in addition to what is already in the pipeline. Meanwhile, a number of states have budgeted for expanding broadband within their state, so it appears the funds are there. However, once broadband is in place in rural areas, it is not clear if day-to-day operations will be funded or if the states are expected to be self-sufficient.
From reports I am reading, it appears the federal government will be sending a portion of the $65 Billion allocation to the states and it will be the states’ responsibility to find a way to provide broadband service to those who do not have it.
Some states are more prepared for this influx of funds than others. I think probably one-third of the states and territories already have plans in place for how to provide broadband services, and the remaining states and territories will have to come up with their own plans.
There are a number of ways in which each state can move forward, and a number technologies available to be used. The first step for each state is to find out what is already in existence, what is planned, and how close to these rural areas there is already at least one broadband vendor.
Other issues that need to be considered include:
- Forming Partnerships on a local, regional, or statewide basis. We have ready seen how well private/public partnerships work.
- Next, as mentioned above, it is important to find out what is already in place or planned. Some states already have very good broadband coverage maps so it will be easy for them to identify areas that need to be built out. Some states have old and out-of-date maps that will need to be updated, and both the NTIA and the FCC keep telling us they are busy updating their maps based on data provided by the carriers and states.
- Next is the decision about the type of broadband that will be deployed and if there will be only a single vendor in some areas or if it will be possible to have a second vendor to ensure customers receive the best pricing.
I am a strong believer in partnerships. We have a very successful model in FirstNet, the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN) that is up and operational. This partnership is between the Federal Government (The FirstNet Authority) and the private sector. In this case AT&T, which won the 25-year contract to build and operate FirstNet, is the “private” side of the partnership. This example should give many states and agencies a “how to partner” tutorial with a list of potential partners in no particular order. Different areas will have different partners.
Potential Existing Broadband Carrier Partners
- US Cellular
- Carrier Members of the Competitive Carriers Association (CCA)
- Rural Wireless Association (RWA) Members
Other Potential Partners
- National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative members (NRTC)
- Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) members
- Cities, Villages, Counties
- Internet Satellite Providers
- And more
Advantages to Private/Public Partnerships
- Many potential partners already have right-of-way access in rural areas (NRTC), rural utility companies, railroads, and more)
- Medical Facilities, Colleges, and Universities
- Partners Who Need Broadband for Their Own Use (power companies, etc.)
- Companies that have trucks and feet on the street; customers are the same as potential broadband customers
Technologies to Deploy
- Fiber Optics
- As backhaul
- To the premise
- LTE and 5G wide-area broadband
- Including “mid-band spectrum”
- Point-to-multipoint broadband
- In-premise broadband distribution
- 2.4 GHz, 5.8 GHz, and now Wi-Fi 6E in 6-GHz band
- (Caveat, band is shared with critical microwave systems and Wi-Fi 6E; potential for causing interference to these microwave systems.
- Satellite-Little LEOs Broadband
- Outdoor with external roof-top antenna, also indoor-capable
As you can see, there are many technology choices listed above and probably a few more. I believe one mistake some states have been making is to choose a single technology for a specific area and not mix technologies to expand coverage.
Fiber Best Example
Many think fiber is the ultimate choice for providing broadband everywhere. Too often, fiber to the premise is the first choice when planning rural broadband deployments.
Issues with This Approach
First, you will have to figure out where existing fiber is nearest to the area you want to build out. In Arizona, we found that smaller fiber companies are willing to provide maps of their fiber coverage but large companies were not, mostly because they want to keep their competitors in the dark.
Next, you have to calculate the cost to run fiber to the premise. There are two ways to run fiber. The first is to run it above ground using existing telephone/power poles, which costs a lot less than burying it. However, during major disasters, or even a single car crash, poles can be taken out and cause outages. Even with fiber buried underground there have been many instances where a backhoe or bulldozer has taken out a section of fiber causing outages of broadband services and, in some cases, cellphone and even 9-1-1 service interruptions.
As I see it, other than cost, the most significant issue with fiber to the premise in rural areas is while fiber provides broadband to homes and businesses, if a broadband-capable cellular system does not serve the area, all you have is basically an inbuilding solution. Most of us are mobile and want and need broadband not only indoors but in farmers’ fields, on the roads and, well, everywhere we go. The issues described above indicate the need for a hybrid approach.
The Hybrid Approach
If I were managing a state rollout of broadband services in different rural areas, I would use a mix of broadband technologies including fiber, microwave for transport, cellular LTE and 5G, Wi-Fi, and perhaps some satellite services as well.
In one area of the state, I might choose to run fiber to a central location such as a school. I might also expand the fiber to as many houses and business as I could within the town or village limits, for example. I might then work with an existing cellular carrier to help increase its outdoor coverage area and data speeds. In other easy-to-cover areas I might use fiber for backhaul. To cover outdoors, homes, and businesses outside of town, I would probably install satellite broadband with antennas mounted on homes and businesses to extend broadband into the premise where I would use Wi-Fi for distribution.
If I discovered the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) was already active in an area, perhaps I would cut a deal with one of its providers to augment what they are doing by helping them cover more area. I would want access to a broadband cellular system for mobility.
Broadband growth into rural areas has been stymied and boils down to one thing: Cost. Cellular network operators are not likely to spend $200 or $300K on a cell site in rural areas since the amount of traffic will not pay for the site over time. In the meantime, the carrier would be faced with additional costs such as insurance, site rental, power usage, and more.
The issue of cost is not a one-time expenditure, either. After building out whatever type of broadband service you decide is best suited for a specific rural area, there are ongoing expenses much the same as those of a broadband cellular carrier and other costs as well. Suppose you, as a city, town, county, or state, decided to build out a municipal broadband system. In addition to the above, you would have to find a way to pay for customer support and network expansion. I am always concerned about existing as opposed to new funding for rural broadband. Most existing funds were earmarked for building the system but no funds to pay for operations or additions to the system going forward. Some systems that had been built over the years are no longer in service because they were not self-sustaining and there were no additional federal funds to keep them in operation.
Again, a lesson can be learned from the FirstNet private/public partnership. FirstNet was funded by spectrum auctions but only in the amount of about $7 Billion, which is not enough to build out a nationwide broadband network. Further, Congress made it clear that it would not be acceptable for the FirstNet Authority to return in a few years and ask for more funding. This venture was intended to be self-funding and it has been.
The carrot for the contractor (AT&T) is that its commercial customers have access to what is known as Band 14 (20 MHz of prime 700-MHz spectrum) on a secondary basis when public safety does not need all of it. AT&T is making money from serving the first-responder community users, and as required in the contract, AT&T is paying the FirstNet Authority based on funds collected from AT&Ts FirstNet users. The funds from AT&T and FirstNet (Built with AT&T) finance the Authority so it won’t need to ask for additional federal funding, and the Authority uses the balance of the funds to improve the network. For example, as everyone moves toward 5G, the Authority made an investment in the FirstNet core (brains) to ready it to handle both LTE and 5G traffic. Funds have also been allocated for other items, all of which are designed to help provide better communications for public safety.
Broadband everywhere is a vitally important for many reasons. Schools and students need it, home owners and businesses need it, and medical facilities need it. In other words, everyone needs broadband because it has become as important today as the wired telephone was many years ago.
There are rural areas that have lost factories or businesses that had provided jobs for those living in the area, and there are companies that would love to move out of large cities into smaller less-expensive factories and offices in rural areas. However, until reliable and fast broadband is available, new companies will not move into the area.
We now have the funds to expand broadband and states, counties, and rural areas are ready. It is time for common IP-based systems and devices so when rural homeowners travel outside their area, they will continue to have broadband services. In other words, one-off broadband systems will not do much to close the digital divide.
As we enter the fourth month of 2022, both the FirstNet Authority and FirstNet (Built with AT&T) continue to improve the network and, as a result, the number of FirstNet users and agencies being serviced continues to grow. If you follow FirstNet (Built with AT&T) either through a Google auto search or in the news, you will see frequent announcements about new FirstNet/AT&T cell sites being turned on in various states. An increase in the number of cell sites indicates that FirstNet (Built with AT&T) continues to add coverage to accommodate the growing number of users and to fill in the coverage footprint.
Those of us who have been in the wireless business for a while understand that there is no practical way to cover the entire geographic area that makes up the United States. Even when Little LEO (Low Earth Orbiting) satellites are fully operational there will continue to be gaps in coverage. I have worked with several major Land Mobile Radio companies. One no longer exists, one is now L3Harris and, of course Motorola. We visited a customer that was preparing to issue a request for proposal. Many times throughout the RFP process we found their coverage expectations did not track with real-world radio system capabilities. I remember one such customer who said his county needed 99% outdoor coverage to a handheld LMR radio, and at least first wall coverage in buildings.
I explained to him that there was no way his county could afford that type of LMR coverage. I finally got through to him when I told him that a system capable of covering 75-80-percent of his county would probably cost around $2 million, but if he wanted the extract coverage to reach his goal the cost would probably triple by the time the system was built.
That caught his attention and we ended up with an LMR system that gave them as much coverage as possible for a fair price.
Most LMR systems do not cover all of an agency’s jurisdiction. Even though new sites have been added over the four years, perhaps including remote receivers in a voting system, they still do not cover every inch of land. in most cases. However, they do cover a large percentage of the population in the area served.
A lesson learned as LMR systems continue to be deployed is that they cannot cover everywhere in a given area. This seems to be lost on some who are using FirstNet as well as LMR for their communications. FirstNet (Built with AT&T) is not a local, countrywide, or statewide radio system. It is a nationwide public safety broadband network. It is difficult enough to fill in coverage gaps using the higher-power LMR systems that are designed to provide good local coverage.
FirstNet is nationwide and while it will continue to be being built out for many years, there will always be some areas of the United States where there is no coverage. When and if needed, these areas can be covered for the duration of an incident with a variety of different types of deployables.
Building a nationwide system is a lot more difficult than building a local or even regional system and, as I keep saying, I have never seen a wireless broadband network that is finished. There are always more areas to cover and more spectrum to add to congested areas. All of this considered, what FirstNet has accomplished in less than five years it is pretty amazing.
When I was able to drive and did a lot of network drive testing, over time it became obvious from the data that the FirstNet system was becoming more and more robust, and expectations are that this will continue.
I think having both a local LMR network and FirstNet provides several levels of redundancy. Once we have a common PTT platform that can be used on FirstNet and connected to LMR systems, there will be yet another level of redundancy. I learned a long time ago that no matter how well a network performs or how well it covers, there will always be complaints about things such as coverage. I guess that is a fact of life. Yet when I talk with people who who use FirstNet every day, and also continue to use their own LMR systems, I hear that FirstNet has added a layer of functionality that public safety has never had before. The combination of FirstNet and LMR is working well and judging from usage data, this has become the model as we move ahead.
Coverage, redundancy, devices, applications, and more will continue to provide enhancements that will enable even better access to the communications tools our first responders need when they are on the job.
Until next week,
Andrew M. Seybold
©Andrew Seybold, Inc.