Public Safety Advocate: No Noise Task Force, FirstNet-Certified PTT, NG911

We will start this Advocate with an introduction to the “No Noise Task Force” (NNTF), which operates under the auspices of the Safer Buildings Coalition (SBC). The NNTF will be investigating in-building communications, primarily for the public-safety community, but also for all of us who need to communicate while inside buildings. Then we will look at eight approved vendors for Push-To-Talk (PTT) over FirstNet and give a nod to Next-Generation 9-1-1 (NG911).

The Need for In-Building Wireless Communications

Over several decades, organizations, companies, people, and first responders have transformed the way we communicate. Today, we have robust fixed and wireless broadband systems, most of our smartphones and tablets are connected wirelessly, and 80% of all calls received by Emergency Communications Centers (ECCs) are delivered through wireless devices and networks.

While efforts worldwide are focused on extending broadband capabilities out to areas where they are not yet available, as we become a more mobile society, there is an increasing need to be able to communicate while inside buildings.

We have fixed infrastructure and in-building Wi-Fi systems that connect to the outside world. However, we now need to expand in-building communications to provide the same services when we are inside structures that we have when we are outdoors.

A number of buildings, primarily in urban areas, are equipped with a multiplicity of methods to provide in-building wireless communications. However, while nationwide standards have been developed for in-building communications for citizens and first responders, they are not being followed. Instead, guidelines are typically imposed at a local or state level and they vary from city to city and from state to state.

Further, there is a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rule that applies nationwide that is not being followed. This rule specifies who should be responsible for certifying or approving in-building communications systems whether they are for consumer cellular, public-safety, or a combination of both services. Scores of in-building communications devices interfere with wide-area networks or no longer provide services because they are out-of-date or not compatible with spectrum changes or network upgrades.

A number of organizations have developed standards and many test equipment vendors are working to help shape the future of in-building wireless communications. Unfortunately, these efforts are not being guided by common, nationwide standards and recommendations.

Signal boosters are commonly used to correct poor in-building public-safety and consumer wireless communications. However, improperly designed, installed, and maintained in-building public-safety wireless systems with signal boosters that cause interference with public-safety macro systems are becoming a major problem across the United States. This interference problem is jeopardizing the safety of emergency responders and the public. NNTF membership, which is made up of stakeholders from code enforcement authorities, licensees, integration companies, first responders, and radio networks, will investigate this problem.

Enter the Safer Buildings Coalition (SBC)

Since its formation in 2012, The Safer Buildings Coalition (SBC) has been actively addressing issues that have arisen with in-building communications. The Coalition recently identified several issues it felt needed to be addressed on a more nationwide basis.

As a result, the SBC formed the No Noise Task Force, which is currently made of up four workgroups. Members of the NNTF and its workgroups are volunteering their time and expertise to address the noise issue highlighted above. 

The four workgroups created so far are entitled, “What You Don’t Know,” “Start with the End in Mind,” Seek First to Understand,” and “Disorder to Order.” The What You Don’t Know committee will provide articles, webinars, and other forms of information to cities, states, groups and organizations, the vendor community, and the general public. It will also provide updates on activities and progress of the NNTF and the industry in general.

Other committees will seek information from a variety of organizations and government agencies that will include the number of buildings already equipped with in-building communications, interference incidents, and other issues that degrade in-building or wide-area communications systems. 

Along the way, a roadmap will be developed to chart tasks and issues to be addressed by the different committees. The Task Force will engage with and collaborate with—not compete with—other organizations working toward similar goals. By working with others, the NNTF expects to be able to establish a common set of guidelines and suggestions that will, hopefully, be crafted into a set of nationwide standards. 

The NNTF and its workgroups understand that there are many moving pieces to this puzzle. The solution will evolve as vendors and others recognize how vitally important in-building communications are to both the public-safety community and the general public. Their efforts will be advanced by public-safety organizations including fire, law-enforcement, and EMS, along with universities, colleges, businesses, and others that need in-building communications capabilities. The common goal is to be able to provide mobile wireless communications capabilities that work inside structures as well as they do in wide-open spaces.

The NNTF and the workgroups have begun their work. If you are interested in joining them or want to provide pertinent information, your views, or your experiences with in-building communications, please feel free to visit the Safer Buildings Coalition website homepage and click on the No Noise Task Force quick-link.

The No Noise Task Force was not formed to commandeer work that has been completed or that is underway. Rather, its purpose is to work with the in-building communications industry and drive toward a consensus. While the NNTF wants to raise awareness of issues faced by first responders who need in-building communications, the ultimate goal is to develop recommendations for what could become a nationwide set of standards so all in-building systems conform to the same set of requirements. 

As FirstNet (Built with AT&T) nears completion of the first five years of its 25-year contract with The FirstNet Authority, 90% of the cell sites planned for FirstNet are in place and the other 10% will be completed prior to the deadline established by The FirstNet Authority.

While AT&T is building out the FirstNet network, it is also adding in-building capabilities, especially in sports arenas, stadiums, and other venues. And as FirstNet evolves and 5G is added to the network, there will be an increased demand for more in-building capabilities on the network.

Typical in-building wireless often includes both cellular and Land Mobile Radio (LMR) public-safety systems. Systems that are already operational will support FirstNet on the AT&T LTE network, however, the ultimate goal should be to add public-safety Band 14.

I have touched on other options for in-building communications over the past few years and one being studied is to work with the FCC on use of 4.9-GHz spectrum. This spectrum could and should support a nationwide 5G broadband system for public safety to augment FirstNet. It should also be used for in-building communications with in-building 5G or Wi-Fi 6, which has been designed for 5G systems.

As the No Noise Task Force develops its roadmap for in-building communications, I will check on its progress, provide updates on its activities, and follow the activity of other organizations providing in-building communications.

FirstNet-Certified Push-To-Talk

Since network build-out began in 2017, FirstNet (Built with AT&T) and The FirstNet Authority have been extremely vigilant in testing devices and applications and certifying them for use on FirstNet. This is good for all FirstNet users since it weeds out devices and applications that do not meet the rigorous standards set by FirstNet. 

It is vitally important that all FirstNet agencies abide by the established rules and guidelines. Apple and Google (Android) require applications to be tested before including them in their respective app stores where consumers can download them, so this is nothing new. FirstNet must maintain several levels of security above commercial networks and use of non-approved products runs contrary to the precepts of the FirstNet network. 

Today, the list of vendors that have met this rigorous evaluation for push-to-talk services over FirstNet stands at eight. These include:

AT&T Enhanced PTT and FirstNet PTT, which is based on Mission-Critical Push-To-Talk (MCPTT), are network-centric, which means the server designed to deliver the PTT service resides within the network. The others, ESChat, JPS VIA, Orion PTT, Tango Tango, TASSTA T.Flex, and WAVE PTT are “over-the-top” push-to-talk applications, meaning their servers are in the cloud. These over-the-top applications can support PTT services across different broadband networks. (However, some also support network-based servers.)

Three of these PTT applications, ESChat, Tango Tango, and JPS VIA, share full interoperability, and some PTT applications provide bridging to land mobile radio networks using a variety of interfaces including the 3GPP standard Internetworking Function (IWF), Inter-RF System Interface (ISSI) for P25 trunked systems, Dynamic Frequency Selection (DFS) and Computer Security Subsystem Interpretation (CSSI) for P25 conventional systems, and Radio over IP (RoIP) for broadband-to-LMR bridging. 

The goal of FirstNet has always been to have a nationwide fully-interoperable broadband network to enable any public-safety agency using FirstNet to communicate with any other agency using FirstNet. However, with this many PTT solutions and each being different, we have not achieved nationwide push-to-talk interoperability, one of the most important elements of any public-safety communications system. 

Vendors are not anxious to work together to provide a common solution for PTT and, so far, MCPTT does not support iOS devices. In addition, today, Radio over IP (RoiP) is the only method for bridging LMR to FirstNet PTT.

The recent certification of Motorola’s WAVE over-the-top PTT application supports only Android devices and it brings the number of FirstNet-certified PTT applications to eight. 

Nationwide public-safety interoperability is vitally important to our first responders. We have been told many times that MCPTT will save the day and provide public safety with what it wants and needs. So far, MCPTT has not come through and we are still dealing with a lack of interoperability. I believe this interoperability issue can be resolved, but it must be resolved sooner rather than later. 

How are we to bring the many vendors together to work on this issue? Typically, vendors are reluctant to work on common issues. You might recall that it took more than twenty years for the P25 standard to truly become a standard and various vendor equipment could be used on P25 systems from any infrastructure vendor. We cannot afford a similar delay in establishing a fully-interoperable nationwide public-safety PTT solution.  

Next-Generation 9-1-1 (NG911)

I am still hopeful Congress will pass a bill that will include funding for Next-Generation 9-1-1 (NG911). Having all the Emergency Communications Centers (ECCs) up and running and capable of NG911 will be a critical move forward. FirstNet is vital to public safety and NG911 will make the FirstNet experience even better by providing information generated by the public, vetted at the ECCs, and then sent over FirstNet to first responders who will be better prepared for what they are heading into. NG911 feeding into FirstNet will equip our first responders with more tools for use in the field. Land mobile radio will not be going away anytime soon and will remain an important part of public-safety communications. However, the addition of being able to transfer incoming pictures, video, and text from those reporting incidents to those responding to them will save lives.

Winding Down

As we begin to return to normal after the past year-plus of isolation due to Covid-19, we have faced extraordinarily severe weather across much of the nation. Drought, record-breaking heat, rain, winds, and more have been the norm this year. For this reason and more, I was pleased to see that FirstNet (Built with AT&T) has added to its fleet of deployables and has indicated there will be more and perhaps different types of deployables added soon. 

Delivering FirstNet coverage during major incidents as quickly as possible is imperative and, so far, FirstNet has been responding well. The people responsible for the FirstNet deployable program are to be commended. Juggling requests for deployables and dispatching them cannot be an easy task.

Until next week…

Andrew M. Seybold 
©2021, Andrew Seybold, Inc.


2 Comments on "Public Safety Advocate: No Noise Task Force, FirstNet-Certified PTT, NG911"

  1. Andy, You may remember my comments from several years back when I stated that FirstNet should hold the license (Intellectual rights) for the only PTT application used for public safety on FirstNet. This could have been contracted for development, or through a public/private venture with NIST PSCR. This way you wouldn’t have any interoperability issues, as everyone would have to play in the same sandbox. Everyone’s application would be exactly alike, and all flavors of OS would be included. My comment was based on the difficult evolution of P25 which never should have happened. For the most part P25 debacle was caused by manufacturers wanting to create a proprietary product, thus setting a de facto standard. Even with FirstNet vetting process, It will be some time before we see seamless operation between all devices.

  2. Randy, First I agree that P-25 took way too long to get to a REAL standard which includes full interoperability between vendors and you are correct that it was not PS which held up the process but the vendors. A also agree that we have to solve the nationwide PTT interiperatibi for applications or PTT, that all cam later but before the FirstNet RFP. I am not sure that we should issues, both LTE to Broadband and Broadband to Broadband. Hindsight is always 20/20 but
    in this case where we were convincing Congress to create FN there were no real applications or PTT over broadband on the horizon. However, the PSCR brouoght us MCPTT which, as deployed only provider for some Android devices and the only LMR interoperability play is still only VOIP. I remain hopeful that we can get to a REAL nationwide PTT interoperability status soon, becuase we cannot afford to wait another 25 years to solve this isse. Thanks for your comments! Andy

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