Welcome to March 2021. If last month was any indication, this will be a very busy year for public-safety professionals, especially those providing communications to the public-safety community. I hope we will see Congress fund Next-Generation 9-1-1 (NG911), which is currently one of the public-safety community’ most critical needs. NG911 will convert standard voice 9-1-1 calls into broadband calls that will include text, videos, and images. While Emergency Command Centers (ECCs) will face some challenges in vetting and authenticating incoming requests for service, once that has been done, the pictures and even videos can be pushed out to first responders in the field.
Consider a police officer responding to a hit-and run accident with the aid of a picture of the fleeing vehicle on a screen in the patrol vehicle and then seeing the vehicle drive by. This is only one of the many ways in which NG911 will add yet another dimension to public-safety response. In many cases, this will result in quicker apprehensions for law enforcement and better visibility for fire and EMS personnel as they respond to emergencies. As I have said before, I believe NG911 is the missing link in filling the FirstNet data pipe with near real-time information for our first responders.
Over the past few months, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has auctioned “mid-band” spectrum, which is referred to as CBRS (Citizens Broadband Radio Spectrum) or C-Band spectrum and, so far, the auctions have raised a huge amount of money. C-band spectrum is the 280 MHz from 3.7 GHz to 4.2 GHz and includes 350 MHz of shared Citizens Band Radio Service (not to be confused with the 27-MHz band used by truckers). Like all spectrum being auctioned or set aside for new uses, this spectrum must be cleared or, in some cases, shared with existing users, and it is considered to be prime spectrum for 5G services.
At the moment, all this spectrum is slated for auction to enrich the U.S. Treasury. In my opinion, some of this spectrum should be held back and reserved exclusively for public safety and perhaps all who qualify as critical-communications users. Time and again, we watch as the FCC sells more finite radio spectrum. Many believe all critical-communications services can be moved to existing commercial broadband systems. I do not believe is a viable solution.
For example, while FirstNet makes use of AT&T’s commercial LTE spectrum, and soon 5G spectrum, Congress has set aside 20 MHz of dedicated spectrum for the public-safety community. This means no matter how busy the commercial spectrum is, public safety always has this 20 MHz it can use when needed. If we take the middle ground with mid-band spectrum and assign a portion to critical-communications providers including public safety, it can be shared—but only with those who need access no matter what to keep their communications up and running during times of emergencies. I would like to see 50 MHz of mid-band spectrum set aside for this purpose as well as restoration of the 50 MHz (at 4.9 GHz) of public-safety spectrum the “old” FCC took away in 2020.
Yes, commercial spectrum makes money for corporations, and yes, the public demands more and more spectrum and faster and faster speeds. Even so, I don’t believe spectrum should simply be allocated to commercial services as demand for bandwidth and network capacity continues to grow while the same demands are facing the critical-communications community. Every year we face more major disasters. The recent weather event in Texas, wildfires in the west, tornadoes, and the increase in severe hurricanes all require communications among and between critical-communications providers for appropriate responses. It boils down to this: If we continue to hand over or sell more and more spectrum for commercial purposes and neglect critical-communications, we will find ourselves in a situation where the public can be watching a Netflix movie while first responders struggle to communicate at an incident. There must be some trade-offs between what the public demands and what the critical-communications community needs.
FirstNet and Rural America
An article in RCRWireless last week highlighted the FirstNet (Built with AT&T) addition of nearly 100,000 square miles of coverage footprint in 2020. As you may recall, the law creating FirstNet requires network build-out to occur simultaneously in metro, suburban, and rural areas. This is intended to prevent the private contractor from building out metro areas where it could start sharing Band 14 on a secondary basis first and leave the rest of the country until later in the contract. AT&T is ahead of the build schedule and has followed the law with its build-outs.
According to this article, AT&T has gone beyond what is required and has built out Band 14 and other AT&T spectrum sites to reach “several hundred thousand additional square miles.” And “The initial plans for FirstNet expansion in rural, remote and tribal areas included plans for more than 1,000 new sites, and AT&T says that more than half of those sites are complete.” Further, AT&T is working with rural network providers to “more quickly address rural coverage needs and expand the reach” of the FirstNet/AT&T network.”
The next paragraph is perhaps the most significant: “The carrier framed its build-out in rural and hard-to-reach places as one that will not only bridge the urban-rural digital divide for first responders (and enable them to use High-Powered User Equipment [HPUE] that extends the reach of the network), but will serve AT&T’s non-FirstNet customers in those locations better as well, because those customers can access Band 14 when there is capacity not required by FirstNet users.”
All of this is great news not only for public safety but also for those who live and work in rural America and have had little or no access to broadband services. Today, the FCC, National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA), other federal agencies, and many states are pushing hard for additional broadband coverage in rural and tribal areas. It still makes no sense to me that FirstNet has not teamed up with some of these federal agencies or that counties and states have not applied for and received grants that could augment the AT&T/FirstNet build-out. Again, closing the digital divide will take a lot longer if we continue to have multiple, disparate federal agencies, state agencies, and private-sector organizations each working on the issues when much more could be accomplished by combining resources, knowledge, and funding.
In the meantime, FirstNet continues to exceed the required build-out and that is great for both public safety and those in rural America. If we add MegaRange™ high-power Band-14 devices to this build-out, we can dramatically expand coverage in rural America. Suppose high-power devices could be paired with a Wi-Fi router for in-home access on a secondary basis for those in areas without broadband services. High-power devices are currently available only for public-safety and secondary responders, but over time, products are expected to be developed to augment secondary-user coverage as well.
L3Harris Device Management
Over the past few weeks, I have been experimenting with a new L3Harris offering it calls a Device Management system. This system is designed to provide fast and easy programming of firmware and personalities for devices through the radio’s built-in LTE and Wi-Fi capabilities. It also enables real-time management of devices being used in a centralized database, and it supports cloud-based deployment for any radio system using L3Harris devices.
I am in the process of learning a new way to organize and keep track of radios including their firmware and programming status. When there is an incident that requires assistance from other agencies that also use L3Harris products, incoming units can be programmed for the channels being used for the incident before they arrive at the scene. I plan to take a more in-depth look at this Device Management suite including how to set it up, how to use it, and security features and functions built into the system.
My Favorite Book
I am reading a book entitled Cutting the Cord, by Martin [Marty] Cooper, who has for years been referred to as “the father of the cell phone.” The book’s cover includes the statement, “The Cell Phone has transformed Humanity,” and not only does it relate the story of how the first handheld phone came to be, it talks about other things that changed the world and delves into the politics of maneuvering through and around a large corporation. It is an easy read full of information that tells the story, and I think it should be a must-read for anyone using cellular services today.
I guess one reason this book is a favorite is because during some of the time Marty and his team were working on this phone, I also worked for Motorola but in Los Angeles where I was part of the State and Local Government team calling on LA County Fire, Sheriff, EMS and communications personnel. During that time, I went to Schaumberg a number of times for training sessions and to work on the bid for LA County’s communications business (which we won for a successive number of years).
On one of these visits, I was introduced to Marty Cooper. We talked for a while and then he took me into a lab and showed me what was to become the first handheld cell phone conceived of and invented. I was amazed at the size and shape of the device compared to the pre-cellular Improved Mobile Telephone Service (IMTS) and cellular phone mobile radios I was accustomed to. I felt privileged to be shown the phone prior to its announcement and that meeting was the beginning of my relationship with Marty that usually resulted in hours of listening to him talk about technology when we were together. Needless to say, I learned a great deal from him. If you can, get a copy of his book and relive the trials and tribulations of his push for the phone that changed the world and the way we communicate.
New Leader for FirstNet (Built with AT&T)
Last week AT&T announced the appointment of Jason Porter as President of AT&T’s Public Sector and FirstNet organization after serving in this capacity on an interim basis since September 2020. Mr. Porter joined AT&T in 2002 and has held many positions within the company, the latest being Chief Data Officer and Senior VP of Strategic Planning.
Congratulations to Jason Porter. I am sure he has come to understand the importance of the FirstNet team within AT&T and that, in many ways, this team has become a partner to not only The FirstNet Authority but also to the public-safety community. I trust FirstNet (Built with AT&T) will continue to move forward with providing the best possible communications network and tools to the public-safety community.
Safer Buildings Coalition: No Noise
I am honored to have been asked to join a distinguished group of people who make up the Executive Steering Committee of the No Noise task force. The stated purpose of this organization is as follows:
“The Safer Buildings Coalition (SBC) is calling for the immediate convening of a task force to address public safety radio interference caused by the improper use of “Signal Boosters” commonly deployed to remediate poor in-building public safety and commercial wireless coverage.” Details of this call to action are documented in a position paper entitled “No Noise.”
In addition to the steering committee that will guide the task force forward, so far, more than seventy other individuals have signed up to assist and they will become members of the various task-force working groups. Additional information, a list of steering-committee members, and a link to the Position Paper can be found here.
A few weeks ago, I mentioned that one of the most challenging interoperability issues I see on the horizon concerns FirstNet applications. Many departments have their own favorite applications that often are not fully compatible with other agencies’ favorite applications. A recent RadioResource’s Mission-Critical Communications publication discusses interoperable applications stating that in the FirstNet catalog of applications, today there are more than ninety unique public-safety solutions across 160+ Android and iOS operating-system versions.
It goes on to list webinars that have been completed and recorded along with upcoming webinars designed to provide in-depth information about these applications. Sessions relate experiences from within the public-safety community describing the use of these applications and information about what is available. I would strongly recommend that any agency using FirstNet have someone review past webinars and plan to attend those planned for the future.
2021 has started off with a bang. Many of us have received our first or second Covid-19 vaccination and while we are still wearing masks, washing our hands, and practicing social distancing, we are looking forward to the first in-person conferences of the year. Personally, I am looking forward to the IWCE conference in Las Vegas. Last year, this event, normally held in the spring, was virtual. This year it will be held in September, giving most of us time to have been vaccinated. Virtual meetings and webinars have filled in for traditional, in-person events and have provided us with pertinent information and interactions. However, there is nothing like an in-person conference and exhibits to be able to meet and talk with people who either use or supply communications technologies.
Meanwhile, I continue to run more drive tests using the AirgainConnect high-power antenna-modem and the FirstNet network. Results continue to show that the FirstNet network, especially Band 14, is becoming better and better. According to AT&T, it has completed 90% of the Band-14 installations but as you read above, that does not mean once it has met the contract requirements, it will stop building. Add MegaRange devices to the robust FirstNet network and coverage for data and video will be enhanced in many different situations. This is not only true for rural areas where results are easy to chart, it is also true in suburban and metro areas where extra power increases the reach of the mobile and adds reach for those within a vehicle’s Wi-Fi bubble. The white paper I have written for Airgain about High-Power User Equipment will be available later this week if you are interested in reading a more in-depth analysis of the advantages MegaRange brings to FirstNet users.
Until next week…
Andrew M. Seybold
©2021, Andrew Seybold, Inc.