It has been a while since I heard people claiming FirstNet (Built with AT&T) will replace Land Mobile Radio (LMR) systems. I had thought by now most of us, including elected officials who hold the purse strings, would understand there is value in having both LMR and FirstNet.
FirstNet reports that the network is about 90% complete, more than a year ahead of schedule and double the number of first responders on the network. Still, there is a need for LMR systems and, just as important, there is a need for FirstNet and LMR to be able to work together to augment each other on a daily basis and during incidents. Public-safety community vendors, LMR, and FirstNet are working toward better ways to provide Push-To-Talk (PTT) across LMR and FirstNet for commonality of voice communications.
What if we could provide even better levels of integration? In 2019, I wrote an article for Mission Critical Communications in which I put forth the idea of a fully IP-centric communications world for public safety. It starts with Next-Generation 9-1-1 (NG911), which is and will continue to be IP-based, add FirstNet, which is already IP-based, and that leaves LMR, much of which is not based on IP interconnectivity or backhaul but could easily be converted to an all-IP back-end.
In 2019, I authored a white paper for EF Johnson, which is part of the JVC Kenwood family of companies. It discussed EF Johnson’s P25 trunking system that uses an all-IP back-end and moves the P25 Trunking Central Computer (single point of failure) out to each of the P25 radio sites. In this model, the system provides a higher level of redundancy since every site has its own controller that can take over if there is a network failure. It also provides for IP connectivity between sites. EF Johnson is not the only LMR vendor that can provide this type of fully-redundant LMR P25 trunked radio system. L3Harris has been using this model for some time, Motorola can if pushed hard enough, and several other vendors have made IP back-ends available for their own P25 systems.
With all three dedicated public-safety networks using IP back-end systems, there is a common set of connection points and, in the future, they will provide for better levels of interconnection. The issue will be that FirstNet’s IP back-end is nationwide while NG911 and LMR back-ends may be more local in nature. Still, if every form of public-safety communications is based on an IP structure, IP professionals will figure out better ways to integrate these networks without using bridges and interconnects for PTT and perhaps more tightly coupling all of them.
I then put forth the idea that, over time, a single device could be designed and built (hopefully by multiple vendors) that would combine the best of both FirstNet and LMR in a single device. The device I envision would be smart in the sense that it would send and receive voice, text, data, and video traffic to the appropriate component in the device and devices would be controlled primarily by the networks rather than users. However, when off-network use is required, these devices could be set up and used locally by first responders or they could be set up over the air if the device is within network range.
My vision is to take the technology and complexity out of field devices and let the smart network direct traffic to the appropriate part of the device, yet when out of range, still enable off-network mode for one-to-one and one-to-many communications. After the Mission Critical article was published, I received an email from someone at the DHS I have known for a number of years. He said he had received inquiries asking if I had been briefed on the DHS ongoing work along the same lines. I had not, and when the DHS report was released, I wrote an Advocate praising its work and discussing the similarities.
What I don’t know is if existing public-safety networks can be converted to IP-centric back-end systems. I believe it is possible, but the biggest issue is the cost of converting the systems. Even so, many existing systems have been finding that their landline connections, T-1, and other direct copper connections are being eliminated as many phone companies cut back on wireline connectivity in favor of fiber. Further, the number of landline phones continues to shrink as more people move to wireless devices. This is especially true of the younger generations. Many of them have never had a landline phone and most likely never will.
In many cases, T-1 and direct copper connections are being replaced with Radio over IP (RoIP) connections and there is a movement that will eventually mean that most LMR systems, including analog LMR, can be upgraded to an IP back-end. (There are more analog FM systems in use than many people think.) As these upgrades are made, landline connectivity gives way to IP connectivity, and microwave systems are upgraded to digital (IP), we are moving steadily toward an all-IP world.
We are also seeing an increasing number of cloud-based systems for public safety and some NG911 providers are touting them. Motorola and L3Harris both offer cloud-based radio management systems, but I am not a fan of using the commercial Internet to connect to these cloud-based systems, especially since private, more secure connections are either already available or are becoming available. While many trust Internet connections citing Virtual Private Networks (VPN) as being secure and reliable, I view today’s Internet as a best-effort network and not a critical-communications network.
Clouds make many things possible and multiple agencies can share services and have better interoperability, so it will be interesting to see how the idea of moving to an all-IP world using cloud-based systems plays out not only within public-safety communications but also within the entire critical-communications world.
The Move to 5G
At some point, FirstNet will include 5G technology. At first it will be a combination of existing LTE with new 5G capabilities, but over time there will probably be a full migration to 5G. Since 5G and LTE are IP-based technologies, the transition should be smooth. It will be interesting to see if the public-safety community (or the general public) understands that there are different types of 5G offering different speeds and capacities. Today, low band is better than LTE in the same spectrum, and faster mid-band is about to be available after companies spent $billions on the spectrum. The ultimate 5G will be mmWave systems that require many small cells because each cell’s coverage area is measured not in miles but in football fields. mmWave 5G is where data rates and capacities will be in the gigabit range. The problem 5G faces is that when people hear “gigabit speeds” and sign up for 5G, they are instantly disappointed because no one bothered to explain the differences between low-band, mid-band, and millimeter-band systems. I think this will become clearer to potential users, but at this point, the gigabit expectation remains a stumbling block.
One Final Point
The last reason a move to all-IP public-safety networks is a good move is as more long-time communications professionals working for cities, counties, and states are retiring, it is not unusual to see communications departments folded into the IT shops. This has presented problems for public-safety agencies since most IT shops are very familiar with IP-related systems but land mobile radio is foreign to them. In some instances, those remaining in a communications department are simply reassigned to the IT department and all is well until there is a need to revamp or upgrade an LMR system. Management in the IT department probably will not understand why this is necessary, especially with FirstNet up and running.
The smartest way to deal with this is for IT people to respect people remaining in the communications department and whenever called into a meeting with elected officials, representatives from both IT and communications are present. My point is that since many IT shops are becoming home to communications, the idea of a common IP back-end is something they can all understand.
I believe public safety needs all three of its communications networks: NG911 for incoming calls, texts, pictures, and videos; FirstNet for disseminating this incoming information to first responders and their managers; and land mobile radio for voice communications in conjunction with FirstNet for both on- and off-network communications. No matter how good a network is, there will be places and times when there will be no coverage and off-network communications will be the prime method of command-and-control.
There is also a trend, especially in rural areas, to add mobile satellite service for IP backhaul to and from a vehicle that is out of terrestrial range. The ability to automatically switch from terrestrial LMR and FirstNet systems to satellite systems extends capabilities for those in the field and this capability can be easily integrated into an all-IP series of networks.
It will be interesting to see how many LMR systems will include IP-based back-ends as they are upgraded (especially T-band systems that were not permitted to make changes for far too many years). For trunked systems designed along the lines of the EF Johnson systems I wrote about, there is an added benefit to moving to an IP back-end that spreads the central “brains” of the network to all of the sites, adding yet another step in the graceful degradation of the network when it fails.
For many years, public safety has lived in a world that had not kept up with technology. Thanks to FirstNet, that has been corrected. Now we need to make sure public safety stays on top of continuing technological changes that hopefully make their communications faster, easier, and more robust.
FirstNet Authority Podcasts
This week The FirstNet Authority released another podcast. This one is hosted by FirstNet Authority CEO Ed Parkinson. Ed was previously involved as a staff member in Congress during the time the public-safety community was trying to win FirstNet approval and he was very helpful in the effort. The best way to introduce his guest, Chief (Ret) Harlin McEwen, is to say that among many other things, he is the father of FirstNet. I recommend this podcast to anyone who may not have an understanding of the background and efforts it took for FirstNet to be passed into law, and the many ways it has progressed faster and better than envisioned. Mr. Parkinson and Chief McEwen discuss today’s latest improvements in features and services that make the network even more robust.
New White Paper
I recently completed a white paper on High-Power User Equipment (HPUE), which FirstNet (Built with AT&T) refers to as MegaRange™ devices. Airgain is one of two companies with FirstNet-approved HPUE devices, Assured Wireless is the other. You can download the paper here.
Verizon Is At It Again!
You may recall that I took on Verizon’s claim that it intended to be competitive with FirstNet in a recent Advocate. I pointed out that whenever FirstNet made new announcements, Verizon responded with its own public-safety announcements in an effort to retain some of its public-safety customers. Now it appears Verizon plans to announce a new public-safety service it will call “Frontline First.” The following is an exact quote from an article by Telecompetitor: “When Telecompetitor asked a Verizon spokesperson how the Frontline network differs from the first responder core network announced in 2018, the response seemed to suggest that the move was primarily a new positioning and branding of the offering.”
My comments stand. Verizon no longer supported the public-safety effort to create FirstNet after the law was passed and it did not bid on the RFP. More than a year after AT&T began building out the popular FirstNet network, Verizon announced it was still in the game of providing broadband communications for public safety.
FirstNet remains the only public-safety network that is not subject to the whims of a commercial board of directors or stockholders. The FirstNet Authority is an independent government agency that oversees network build-out and operation and it is ultimately responsible for FirstNet’s success.
While public-safety agencies are not required to join FirstNet, the number of agencies that joined last year affirms that FirstNet is built for public safety and it is not an add-on to a commercial network that is responsible to its stockholders.
As I said last month, I look forward to being able to attend conferences in person again. It appears that APCO’s yearly conference, to be held in San Antonio, Texas from Sunday, August 15 through 18 will be an in-person event. APCO continues to choose the hottest places in August to host the conference. Pre-conference sessions for members begin on Thursday, August 12 with an APCO Institute Course and New Council Orientation, followed by more institute courses on Friday and Saturday as well as the usual committee member and committee chair recognitions. Then on Sunday, the main conference and exhibits begin and run through Wednesday, August 18.
Currently, the APCO and IWCE conferences are planned to be in person, but there is also information on the IACP and IAFC conferences. Hopefully, by this fall we will have received our first covid-19 shot or both shots and we will be ready to wander around the exhibit halls, attend conference sessions, spend time with old friends, and make new friends. I really look forward to being able to travel to conferences again and to visit with public-safety agencies in other parts of the United States and perhaps other countries. All it will take is for us to follow the advice of health professionals and be vaccinated when it is our turn! (I have had my two.)
I hope by most of us following CDC guidelines and being vaccinated when we are eligible, we will reduce first-responder and medical-personnel workloads and they will be able to enjoy each other’s company at upcoming conferences.
Until next week…
Andrew M. Seybold
©2021, Andrew Seybold, Inc.