The imminent release of Motorola’s 3GPP-compliant (sans ProSe) Push-To-Talk (PTT) will be the second 3GPP-compliant PTT application available on FirstNet (Built with AT&T). With seven other PTT applications already approved for the network, I am concerned about how we progress from today where we have a variety of flavors of PTT to where we need to be with fully-interoperable push-to-talk for FirstNet and integration with multiple forms of Land Mobile Radio systems (LMR).
Last week, I wrote about the FirstNet Authority’s request for information concerning off-network communications. Response to that article was greater than to any I have written in the past three to four months. Most of the comments were positive and many brought up some of the same issues I wrote about.
While one long-time reader commented positively on the article, he also discussed the fact that perhaps the land mobile radio community needs governments around the world to insist on LMR standards. He pointed out that in many other parts of the world, Terrestrial Trunked Radio (TETRA) and Digital Mobile Radio (DMR) are being used in addition to P25 conventional and trunked systems.
This started me thinking. If we can bring full push-to-talk interoperability to FirstNet/broadband networks so any first responder can have a PTT conversation with any other first responder, regardless of where they are, this interoperability might mean more LMR options for first-responder agencies.
Things are different in other parts of the world, but in the United States we still have a large number of agencies using analog FM (because P25 is too expensive, especially for smaller agencies), others have deployed P25 conventional, some P25 trunked systems, and some have deployed digital mobile radio systems.
When FirstNet was created in 2012, those involved believed this network would solve interoperability issues between first responders from any agency. Inclusion of this interoperability is imperative since it is not possible in the LMR world with its various forms of LMR. Even though LMR has nationwide interoperability voice channels, agencies are not able to talk to each other using LMR on different portions of spectrum and different flavors of LMR networks. Off-network communications is the only commonality in land mobile radio.
FirstNet was to be the network that solved this interoperability issue. While FirstNet has been able to provide much-improved levels of coordination between local, state, and federal agencies, it has not yet been able to solve the issue of agency-to-agency interoperability.
When FirstNet/broadband networks provide a higher level of interoperability between agencies, FirstNet will become the overlying network that will provide agency-to-agency interoperability for PTT voice communications. Then agencies will be free to decide which LMR technology they want to implement.
This means, for example, smaller agencies that are using analog FM because they cannot afford to move to P25 could consider Digital Mobile Radio (DMR), which is also a digital network but it costs a lot less. The downside is that while DMR III is very robust, at least one vendor is offering two flavors—one that meets all DMR standards, is fully interoperable, and is available to anyone, and one is that is proprietary.
As I have said many times, I do not believe FirstNet will replace LMR any time soon. In fact, I believe LMR will continue to be viable and necessary for many years to come. However, when FirstNet provides interoperability over FirstNet/broadband and is easily integrated into various forms of LMR, we will have finally met the interoperability goal we had in mind as we walked the Halls of Congress, filed case documents with the FCC, and won support from the Executive Branch to help pass the legislation that created FirstNet.
I welcomed the FirstNet Authority Request for Information concerning off-network communications including push-to-talk, and was happy to see that the RFI included a statement saying a solution for off-network PTT would not necessarily be built around 3GPP standards. I have to wonder if a similar request for information regarding a common push-to-talk solution across FirstNet/broadband networks would bring PTT vendors together.
It is frustrating to know some FirstNet-approved PTT applications can and do provide integration with all forms of LMR communications and they can be used across broadband networks, but that many without experience in the field continue to believe that, at some point, the 3GPP standard will solve all our interoperability issues.
So far, push-to-talk applications that meet some or all of the 3GPP standard and are available today are not capable of working on both Android and Apple iOS devices. So far, Radio over IP (RoIP) offers the only way to integrate these applications with LMR systems but RoIP is the least desirable way to integrate broadband and LMR push-to-talk.
Motorola’s 3GPP-standard push-to-talk solution entry is to be available sometime this year. From what I understand, it is part of Motorola’s critical-communications platform that uses cloud-based technologies. Perhaps this solution or the L3Harris BeOn back-end will provide the level of interoperability that is needed sooner rather than later.
Vendors that have been deploying PTT over FirstNet/broadband have become good at integrating their broadband PTT with a number of LMR PTT applications and at including full encryption. Several of these vendors have already demonstrated they can interoperate with some if not all the other PTT applications approved for FirstNet but other vendors will not permit interoperability with their PTT.
For too many years, public safety has had to deal with LMR systems vendors that have designed systems that could only be expanded by buying products from the original vendor. The P25 saga is an example of this at its worst. It took more than two decades for there to be a true set of standards to enable most vendors’ equipment to work in a wide variety of P25 systems. Public safety cannot afford to wait for an extended period for the level of agency-to-agency interoperability that is needed now.
There have been some successes in standardization of LMR radios. For many years, railroads called out a specific control head and interface for land mobile radios. To sell a radio to a railroad company, it had to be built to interface with that control head and those cables. It did not take the LMR vendor community long to adapt to the requirements called out by the railroad industry.
The National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) recent release of criteria for a portable radio with a speaker/microphone provides another example of vendors working toward the same goal. While the specification includes criteria for exposure to heat and water and more, it does not go into the inner workings of the radio. However, it does require, for example, a standard connector to enable any approved speaker/microphone to be used on any approved handheld radio. Vendors are not required to change their connectors, which in many cases are proprietary, but a standardized connector must be located somewhere in the cabling that runs from the radio to the speaker/mic. This specification is new and it took many years to work out as well, but now a number of vendors are planning to or have designed radios to meet this new standard.
Even so, the public-safety community has had to wait while the NFPA worked with its membership and vendor engineers to be sure the specification would be acceptable to the vendors. It seems public safety always has to wait too long for new advances. In the meantime, every year or so, you and I can buy new and better smartphones and, for that matter, automobiles.
While the public-safety community has come together many times in its effort to better serve the public, the vendor community often takes too long to deliver greatly-needed solutions to the first-responder community.
With the addition of FirstNet and, hopefully, Next-Generation 9-1-1 when funded, the public-safety community has been transported from “the dark ages of communications” to the same level citizens have enjoyed for many years. Yet until we solve the issue of push-to-talk interoperability, which I assume will be followed by “push-to-X,” there will remain a large gap between what first responders are able to do today and the vision of the capabilities they should have by now. If the public-safety community continues to let the vendor community dictate when and which new methods of communications are to become available, public safety will continue to have one foot in the last century and the other in this century. The vendor community owes it to our first responders to “get it right,” and soon.
FirstNet Authority FY 2022 Budget
The FirstNet Authority (the Authority) Board of Directors unanimously approved its budget for fiscal year 2022. This budget will become effective October 1, 2022.
When FirstNet was created in 2012, Congress allocated $7billion to come from future spectrum auctions; FirstNet received the $7billion after completion of the auctions. No one thought $7billion would come close to funding buildout of the FirstNet nationwide broadband network.
The theory behind ongoing funding was that the Authority would enter into a public-private partnership. Some of the $7billion would be used to defray expenses for the Authority itself, and the balance would be used to incentivize the private partner and help build out the network. Estimates for the total buildout were between $30billion and $40billion!
In 2017, the Authority awarded the contract to build and maintain the network to AT&T and set up performance milestones for the first five-year buildout of the 25-year contract. As AT&T met each of these milestones, it was eligible to receive a portion of the $7billion being managed by the Authority.
The law also required the contractor (AT&T) to pay the Authority some of the money it collects from agencies using the FirstNet network. The idea was to prevent the Authority from having to return to Congress to ask for more money.
Each year since 2017 as milestones have been met, the Authority has paid the allotment of the funds to AT&T. During this period, AT&T has paid the Authority a portion of the money it has collected from FirstNet subscribers. The object was both to be able to continuously fund the Authority and for the Authority to have funds to reinvest in the network as determined by the Board of Directors. This arrangement has worked well so far.
This year, the Authority will reinvest $94million in the FirstNet network and $79.3million will go to fund operations at the Authority. Of the funds in the budget, $40.7million came from the yearly Authority payment of $120million to AT&T. Finally, an additional reserve of $79.3million can be used with Board approval for other items to enhance the network or invest in technologies that will provide future benefits to the public-safety community.
It appears that the Authority and AT&T will be able to sustain the network going forward, even after completion of the initial five-year buildout. Perhaps this model of a private/public partnership should be followed or at least held up as a model for funding, broadband buildouts, Next-Generation 9-1-1 buildouts, and more after Congress has allocated the funds.
The 2021 APCO conference is in the history books. Next up are conferences from the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the CCA, and IWCE in Las Vegas at the end of September. Unfortunately, I will only be attending IWCE this year.
These conferences will generate news and new product releases from the vendor community. I am hopeful some LMR/LTE or perhaps LMR/LTE/5G devices will be among the new products announced or shown at these conferences.
We are nearing the end of the FirstNet (Built with AT&T) buildout but as we all know; this does not mean the FirstNet network will have been completed. Even before this initial buildout has concluded, AT&T is opening up its 5G systems in multiple cities and areas for use by first responders.
There are so many ways the Authority can distribute reserve funds to assist the public-safety community that I imagine the Board of Directors will have a difficult time determining where the funds will have the greatest impact.
One of my thoughts is to use some of the money to provide for even more portable, mobile, and other types of emergency cell sites and communications systems to augment those already in service that are being used much more often in response to harsh and changing weather conditions.
As the Authority and FirstNet (Built with AT&T) continue investing in the network, devices, and applications, we will see significant advancements that will benefit public safety. Hopefully, this will help convince agencies that have not yet joined FirstNet to take another look at the network and what it is becoming. Then they can decide to join the more than 17,000 other public-safety agencies on the network the public-safety community and dedicated friends have devoted so much to making a reality
Until next week…
Andrew M. Seybold
©2021, Andrew Seybold, Inc.