As you can tell from the rather long title, we will cover a number of subjects this week. First among them is that NASA has awarded a contract to Nokia for LTE on the moon. In the meantime, the press is full of articles about students who are still unable to connect to any kind of terrestrial broadband network. This is followed by articles making the rounds that point to the Department of Defense (DOD) wanting to build a federal 5G nationwide network, which, of course, doesn’t make sense when there are already three nationwide 5G networks in operation today.
https://www.rrmediagroup.com/News/NewsDetails/NewsID/19484/Even so, DOD wants its own 5G network. Though it denies any interest, it appears the White House wants Rivada Networks to be awarded the contract without going to bid. You might remember Rivada since it was one of three bidders for FirstNet. Next are several news items worth mentioning: Samsung has a signed deal to provide ESChat’s Push-To-Talk (PTT) on its devices along with its own Mission-Critical Push-To-Talk (MCPTT)-compliant PTT service that forms the basis for FirstNet’s new PTT offering; there are now 5G-capable iPhones on the market along with other vendor’s 5G compliant phones; and Sierra Wireless has upgraded its mobile router top-end MG-90 with 5G capabilities. In closing, the Winding Down section discusses the California Department of Justice (DOJ) surprise memo requiring radio-channel encryption by the end of this December.
Let’s Start with the Moon
It was interesting to read that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has contracted with Nokia to bring 4G LTE to the moon. The contract is only worth about $14 million, which is far less than it would cost to transport Nokia engineers to the moon to build the network. So far, NASA has awarded more than $370 million to a dozen companies to deploy technologies of various sorts on the moon. As the CNN news story put it, “If you’re unable to get a cell phone signal when you walk your dog around the block, this will really make your blood boil: NASA is putting a 4G network on the moon.” The teaser for the story puts it this way, “The moon is getting 4G internet before 4 billion earthlings.”
Realizing NASA is about space and has nothing to do with terrestrial broadband, perhaps some think this contract award is acceptable. However, those struggling to access broadband services, mostly in rural America, are not being served. The issues keeping them from being served are basically self-inflicted federal government wounds. Since Covid-19, many people are having to school and work from home and the importance of broadband connectivity and the lack thereof has become a major point of contention. Yet Congress, which tried several times, has failed to pass bills combining federal efforts to support broadband deployment on a nationwide basis. Thus, we are left with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and its outdated coverage maps and slow response to funding, as well as too many other agencies offering grants or loans for broadband doling them out in dribs and drabs. Some progress has been made but much more could have been made had everyone worked together on a plan and action based on circumstances and oversight.
In my estimation, we need to revamp how we address extending broadband to those who do not have it and those who cannot afford it. Many of the federal grants favor fiber to the home even if the home is a farm located miles outside a local village or town. Furthermore, most of the grants and loans are for building but not operating the broadband networks once they are up and running. A large number of companies and organizations (e.g., WISPA) understand the issues and are moving to fill in dead spots and dead areas. Vendors are stepping up to the task but there remain areas where it is not economical to lay fiber or even build out full-blown cell sites.
Even with that being the case, a number of different avenues are available. There is fiber direct to the school, office, or government center and, in some cases direct to the home, then fiber to a hub with various forms of wireless from the hub to those who are not connected today. The FCC and other agencies seem to think 5G is the only way to go even though there are a variety of wireless solutions that can fit the needs of build-outs with differing requirements. I think before a grant is handed out or a loan is provided, consideration should be given to the best and least expensive alternative among a number of options. I am left to wonder if there might actually be 4G on the moon before all students in the United States have access to broadband from home.
The digital divide has been an agonizing issue for many years and it has been addressed only in dribs and drabs. FirstNet is required to cover segments of rural America, co-op rural power companies have available rights-of-way and funds, tribal nations are now able to build out broadband (in some cases making use of 2.5 GHz), and other commercial broadband vendors are claiming progress. Little Low-Earth Orbiting (LEO) satellites could perhaps help if the costs are affordable to lower-income users. In other words, we are not technology-limited; we are facing political limitations to progress while the rural broadband boat has never had a rudder to steer it toward the finish line.
Department of Defense 5G
There is no clarity in the news coming out the Department of Defense. One article seems to point to a private/public partnership for building a 5G nationwide network and sharing it with others. Other news seems to indicate that the network might be built by a single contractor that the White House is talking to. The company, Rivada Networks, says it is not interested but its leading political lobbyist who is well-known in government circles and is from the “correct” political party, is said to have had a number of meetings with some in the White House who are now pushing the idea of a no-bid contract.
Today, the federal government via the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has jurisdiction over more spectrum than the FCC. The idea being floated is to use existing federal and some private spectrum to build a network that could be shared by many. Some claim this is simply a way to reward those of the correct party for their continued support. Others say this is a fool’s folly and others, usually from outside the wireless world with little or no understanding of the issues, think it is a fine idea.
Before looking into the company that might be the no-bid network contractor, it is helpful to look at what could happen and what has happened in the past. As mentioned before, cellular started out as a government-funded and operated venture in many countries. To the best of my knowledge, all of these have been converted to private networks and new and competing cellular networks have grown up around these now-privatized networks. There is one obvious example of a public/private network that is up and running and that is FirstNet. The FirstNet Authority, while a part of the federal government, is an independent authority with its own board of directors and staff. Its budget is funded by proceeds from the FirstNet (Built with AT&T) network, and any excess funds are reinvested in the network for future enhancements and upgrades.
I wonder how they intend to keep a federal network up and running as elections change who is in charge in the White House, Congress, and many federal agencies. Who will pay for shortfalls in lean years and network extensions? Most importantly, can someone with authority in a federal organization somewhere decide the network traffic is detrimental to the current administration and order the network to be shut down?
Back to the Proposed Vendor
Those who have been reading the Advocate for a number of years know that during the run-up to the FirstNet Request for Proposal I spent considerable time discussing Rivada’ s bona fides. Rivada was one of three bidders for the FirstNet contract. One bidder was eliminated during the review period, and then Rivada was eliminated for cause, at which time it sued The FirstNet Authority, delaying the contract award. Rivada lost in Federal Court and the contract was eventually awarded to AT&T. The next phase of the process was that each state and territory had a specified period of time to decide whether it would be part of FirstNet. States that opted out were required to build their own network and agree it would be compatible with FirstNet.
Rivada spent a lot of time and effort working with states to convince them to opt out and New Hampshire went so far as to sign a contract with Rivada. However, at the end of the day, all fifty states and all U.S. territories opted in to FirstNet. To be clear, opting in did not mean every public-safety agency in the state was automatically opted in. Each agency determines for itself if it wants to become part of FirstNet (Built with AT&T). For more detail about Rivada and its past, including a failed broadband network in Alaska, a lot of information about the way it conducts business can be found via today’s Internet search engines.
Regardless of who wins this election, I hope to see a return to sanity concerning a federalized 5G network. You may recall that the U.S. Army recently awarded a contract to FirstNet (Built with AT&T) to supply services and devices to 72 Army installations. Other military agencies have also moved forward with FirstNet or another vendor, so the idea of a DOD network is generally disregarded except by those who want to change the dynamics of the 5G landscape—and not for the better.
ES Chat and Samsung
This is a story that is only beginning. ESChat, an over-the-top push-to-talk application provider with a large installed base of federal, state, and local public-safety agencies, has teamed with Samsung which, under contract to FirstNet (Built with AT&T), is providing the first iteration of what at some point might be considered a full-fledged Mission-Critical Push-To-Talk standards-based application.
As many of us in the media have written, current MCPTT products from both Samsung and Ericsson work only on some Android devices and so far, the ability to tie MCPTT on FirstNet and PTT over Land Mobile Radio (LMR), which I believe is a must, is missing in action. Both vendors are making progress with MCPTT and implementation of the Internetworking Function (IWF) 3GPP interoperability standard. We are told that at some point, non-Android devices will be capable of using a true 3GPP MCPTT application.
So today, MCPTT is slowly making its way into the public-safety market and ESChat has been around for a dozen years with its application that works with both Android and iOS devices. ESChat has also integrated its PTT with multiple land mobile radio PTT systems using several different techniques from Radio over IP (RoIP) for analog systems to full Inter-RF Subsystem Interface (ISSI) integration for P25 trunked systems.
The ESChat PTT application is fully integrated with all iOS and most Android devices. Last week, ESChat and Samsung issued a press release announcing the integration of ESChat with the Samsung Galaxy XCover Pro smartphone, which includes a Verizon version and an unlocked version for other U.S. carriers. The integration includes the ability for ESChat to make use of both the dedicated PTT and Emergency Call buttons. ESChat had previously announced a similar integration on the Samsung Galaxy XCover Field Pro device, which is available in the United States exclusively on FirstNet and AT&T. The most interesting item in the press release is that Samsung and ESChat have entered into a contractual arrangement wherein Samsung can resell ESChat to its carrier and enterprise customers.
This will make sense if the relationship results in a way to combine Samsung’s MCPTT product with ESChat’s over-the-top product. If this happens, it could easily speed deployment of both MCPTT and ESChat and help provide push-to-talk interoperability across FirstNet/LTE and LMR systems. As you read the discussion in Winding Down of what the California DOJ recently decreed, it would be prudent to understand that ESChat meets 100-percent of the California DOJ’s new encryption ruling.
Vehicular routers are close to becoming a must-have in many public-safety vehicles. These routers are capable of providing broadband connectivity with one or more broadband networks, a WiFi bubble around the vehicle, and perhaps enabling Bluetooth. And now, with the upcoming High-Power User Equipment (HPUE) from both Assured Wireless and Airgain, they will provide an even more robust connection point for on-scene broadband communications. Cradlepoint, now owned by Ericsson, and Sierra Wireless are the two major vehicular router suppliers. The Sierra Wireless MG-90 LTE router has included two LTE radios so it can handle two networks. FirstNet is most often the primary network with another network being secondary.
In addition to AT&T’s existing LTE network, FirstNet will offer AT&T’s 5G network and FirstNet users will benefit from full priority access and pre-emption on both networks. Therefore, it makes sense for those who build vehicular routers to add 5G capabilities to their product lines. In fact, Cradlepoint already offers 5G capabilities in some of its products. This week, Sierra Wireless announced its AirLink MG90/MG90 high-performance dual-radio 5G modem, which it claims is a first in the industry. As with the MG-90 LTE router, this device is part of an overall offering that is able to constantly map coverage to and from both receivers. The resultant data is stored in the Sierra Cloud and it can be reviewed at any time. Today I use the MG-90 LTE router for mapping coverage for public-safety agencies that request the service.
The MG-90 product family now includes three versions. The MG90 5G router with fallback to LTE Cat 20 (see link for list of LTE categories). This router is available with Dual 2X2 or single 4X4 radios as well as dual WiFi radios. According to the specifications, 5G data speeds are capable of up to 2 Gbps from the network down to the device (downlink) and 1 Gbps from the device to the network (uplink).
The MG90/LTE-A Pro (LTE Cat 12) is capable of up to 600 Mbps down and 150 Mbps up. FirstNet-ready and approved, it can be configured with one or two LTE radios and dual WiFi radios.
The MG-90 LTE-A (Cat 6) is capable of 3,000 Mbps down and 50 Mbps up, and has one or two LTE radios and dual Wi-Fi radios.
All of these routers include Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) navigation with inertial dead reckoning and vehicle telemetry, five gigabit Ethernet ports, two USB 3.0 ports, and an RS-232 serial port. All the units support WiFi 3X3 Multiple Input, Multiple Output (MIMO), 802.11 b/g/n/ac can be secured, they work on both 2.4-GHz and 5-GHz WiFi bands, and support up to 128 clients. Sierra’s AirLink Mobility Manager (AMM) cloud-based service provides end-to-end network management with real-time and remote mass configuration, control, and troubleshooting. AMM also provides real-time trails that track the location of a vehicle as well as coverage for the two radios on two different networks. One final comment regarding the Ethernet ports: When the MG90/LTE-A Pro FirstNet-approved router is used on FirstNet, a high-power radio can increase radio transmit power to a full 1.25 watts (Band 14 only). This requires either an Assured Wireless HPUE or an Airgain HPUE antenna, either of which can be connected to the router using one of the Ethernet ports, essentially giving MG-90 another complete set of FirstNet radios.
Sierra says its 5G units will be available for beta testing in December of this year and available in the market in early 2021. FirstNet (Built with AT&T) has stated it will offer 5G service in addition to FirstNet’s existing LTE service to public safety, but it is not yet known when 5G will become available. Regardless, many companies will want to use 5G as it is rolled out and I am sure as FirstNet gears up for 5G, the router companies will be ready for their devices to be certified for FirstNet 5G.
By now you know Apple announced several flavors of its iPhone complete with 5G capabilities. Pre-orders are being taken and delivery will begin soon. However, some reports indicate that using an iPhone 12 with 5G can diminish its battery life by several hours. As with any new device, there are bound to be some bugs and updates when adding new radio technology. It is not clear whether the battery power issues can be overcome easily or quickly, so it may be wise to wait for more reviews from independent companies that run new devices through their own tests.
I received a call from a longtime associate living in California who startled me when he told me he had received a number of phone calls from public-safety agencies in California that had received a document from the California Department of Justice (DOJ), California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (CLETS) Administration. CLETS provides law enforcement and criminal justice agencies with access to a variety of databases containing an individual’s criminal history, criminal record, and driving record information.
According to this document, allowable access is currently defined as: “Only authorized law enforcement, criminal justice personnel or their lawfully authorized designees may use CLETS terminal or have access to information derived from CLETS. Any information from CLETS is confidential and for official use only. Access is defined as the ability to hear or view any information provided through the CLETS.”
This document is essentially a re-definition of the phrase “HEAR or VIEW,” stating that this data, supplied by the State and the FBI, is sensitive and therefore the following measures must be put into place:
“Encryption of radio traffic pursuant to FBI CJIS Security Policy sections 126.96.36.199.188.8.131.52.1 and 5.13.1. This will provide the ability to securely broadcast the CJI (both restricted and unrestricted information) and all combinations of PII.
Establish policy to restrict dissemination of specific information that would provide for protection of restricted CJI database information and combinations of name and other data elements that meet the definition of PII. This will provide for the protection of CJI and PII while allowing radio traffic with information necessary to provide public safety.”
Okay, not being an attorney, I read that as every agency needs to add voice and data encryption to any radio channel used to convey any information from CLETS to the field so private scanners and Internet listeners will no longer be able to hear personal information. It appears implementation of the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) will be needed to meet this requirement. This is a tall order made worse by the fact that the CA DOJ wants this done before December 31, 2020!
There are a number of issues with this directive. First, you cannot encrypt analog FM signals using AES, and a number of law-enforcement agencies in California, especially smaller agencies, still use analog FM. If they are using P25, they must purchase AES encryption. In some cases, this may only require software upgrades to equipment, but many systems will require major upgrades or equipment replacements. The cost will be high and in talking to a number of LMR equipment vendors, it appears that even if law-enforcement agencies had the funds, there will not be enough time to complete the procurement and installation processes.
I am sure those within the State of California are or will be consulting with attorneys to confirm the requirements. I find it amazing that such a mandate was issued without funding or sufficient time for compliance. However, this could lead to more departments turning to FirstNet push-to-talk service since many FirstNet/LTE-approved PTT platforms already comply with this encryption requirement. Moving requests for CLETS data off LMR to FirstNet could help agencies meet the tight deadline, but the transition from LMR to FirstNet/LTE will require some revamping of how law enforcement operates, at least in California.
I am certain we will be hearing much more about this issue but for now, it is clear this and similar orders could soon affect law-enforcement agencies in other states and territories as well. Therefore, it will be important for public safety to follow this carefully. I believe while all seven approved PTT applications on FirstNet meet the encryption requirements, users of non-FirstNet LTE systems should be concerned about their network’s PTT encryption standards. I reiterate, it might make sense to look at over-the-top PTT applications that work on many LTE networks to ensure a smooth transition.
Andrew M. Seybold
©2020, Andrew Seybold, Inc.