As of today, 27 states and territories have opted in to FirstNet and it appears as though more are preparing to make the move. Once your state opts in, what do your local, regional, and state agencies do? There are four options:
- Keep using the network operator that is providing you with broadband service. If it is not AT&T, that is fine according to the law.
- Move over to AT&T now and start receiving the full advantages of the FirstNet ecosystem as it is rolled out over the next few years.
- Adopt a wait-and-see attitude and watch how the network evolves.
- Don’t use any broadband data and continue to rely on voice services-only as you always have.
If you are fortunate enough to be able to decide at an agency or multi-agency level, all these options need to be considered as well as pricing. However, if your city or county’s elected or appointed officials will be making the decision based on other factors, such as an existing overall contract with a broadband vendor, and/or what appear to be price differences only, the best you can do is prepare a case for the solution you think is best for your agency and work to gain support among those who will be making the decision. Hopefully, you will be able to make the decision based on the factors that most impact your agency and, of course, the price you will have to pay for the service each month.
One thing you must be aware of as a decision-maker for an agency is that coverage maps, especially those provided by the broadband network, in many cases simply do not represent the true coverage available in a given area. The maps are a snapshot in time, and one thing we know for sure is that broadband networks are still evolving and coverage can and will change over time. Further, there are two types of coverage maps, those generated by a computer-aided design program and those also based on actual drive testing of an area. Broadband operators are constantly performing, or contracting for, drive tests of both new and older coverage as compared to their competitors. In some cases, you will find you can receive this actual drive-test data at least for a single carrier, and some will probably want to share their competitors’ data with you as well.
If your state opts in and your agency is already an AT&T customer, your decision should be simple. Stay on AT&T, sign up for the FirstNet service and pricing, and change out the SIM cards in your devices with SIMs that identify your units as FirstNet-subscribed devices and Band 14-capable (for when it is deployed in your area). Some states and agencies have found that even though AT&T has published its pricing for agencies that subscribe, there may still be some negotiating room depending on how many devices are being used. Combining all of the agencies that will be on the FirstNet system will up your total device count, and if the city or county is planning to switch all of their other users over to AT&T you have even more units to help with your final pricing.
However, don’t simply negotiate the best possible pricing you can with AT&T. This is also the time to discuss and put into writing, any areas where you would like to see more coverage in the future. Perhaps there is an area that is adding new housing and businesses at a fast rate. You will want to make sure AT&T will not wait until there is a significant increase in the population before adding coverage to the area. You also need to indicate areas where you need or want better coverage going forward, and you need to find out about expansion plans for your area. As AT&T adds Radio Access Points (cell sites) to its network, can they be funded by your city or county, or can they be funded by other state and federal grants? So far, we have found AT&T to be open to such discussions.
Not an Existing AT&T Agency?
If you are using a different network operator for your broadband requirements, you might be inclined to stay on that network’s system. That is your agency’s or local government’s right under the terms of the law that created FirstNet. You are not required to make any changes. You may know or at least believe the coverage you now have from your existing network operator is better than that offered by AT&T today. You may have been shown maps provided to the state by AT&T and FirstNet showing today’s coverage and what is coming in the next five years. Or there may simply be a perception that your network coverage is better.
The first thing you owe your agency is to study the coverage maps AT&T provides and compare them with the coverage you now have. However, as mentioned, computer-generated maps only depict what the computer projects the coverage to be, not actual site-by-site coverage. If possible, try to see the latest drive-test map for both your network operator and AT&T so you can compare them. If it has been a number of years since you contracted with your network operator, which is telling you its coverage is the best in the area, perhaps it is time to test AT&T’s coverage.
There are a number of ways you should be able to acquire some equipment to test AT&T coverage. First is directly from AT&T. I am not sure how it handles demo units for field testing, but if AT&T wants your business it will find a way to provide you with equipment. Next is to “beg, borrow, or steal” a Sierra Wireless Vehicular Modem. Sierra offers a multi-network modem that can be equipped with multiple SIMs on multiple networks. Even if the user is not using the networks, the multi-network gateway is mapping the coverage for all the installed networks. This information can be downloaded and then compared so you can make your own assessment of the differences in coverage.
Another way to test coverage is to contact Sonim Technologies. Sonim makes ruggedized handheld LTE units that cover the AT&T LTE bands as well as Band 14. During the recent IACP Communications and Technical Committee, its CEO stood up and talked about the devices, then said publically it is willing to provide demo devices for any agency that wants to test out the devices and the network. I have to assume since this was an announcement made to the group that other handset vendors and AT&T will have to meet this demo challenge as well. One caveat on comparing handheld coverage with in-vehicle coverage is that handhelds will show less coverage than mobiles will with their external antennas mounted on the vehicle so you will need to take the differences in to consideration.
Over many years of evaluating public safety and other systems’ coverage, I have found one of the best ways to cover as much of a territory as possible is to provide equipment to paramedics, either standalone EMS rigs or the engines and trucks that carry them. The reason is simple. Paramedics generally have more calls in more places than most fire and police departments in a given period of time. Collecting data from paramedics is a good way to find out exactly how good the coverage is.
If after you have evaluated coverage from your existing broadband provider and AT&T, even if you decide to stay with your existing vendor, you should contact your AT&T/FirstNet representatives and inform them of where they fall short. When AT&T feels it has added the coverage you need in the jurisdiction, you can revisit your move to FirstNet/AT&T. If AT&T is agreeable to your request, and I am betting it will be, the best course of action is to ensure any plan you have with another broadband provider does not tie you into a multi-year contract. I would expect your existing vendor to offer incentives to convince you to sign a binding long-term commitment and then a potential move to AT&T could needlessly become more expensive.
Wait and See
The last type of agencies will adopt a wait-and-see attitude. Some may, in fact, be using broadband data and some may not have subscribed. These agencies will wait to see what happens with the agencies they work with and will seek progress reports from those that stay where they are as well as those that use or move to AT&T/FirstNet. In any event, no one should expect every agency in the United States, its territories, or tribal nations to join FirstNet all at once. The process to a truly nationwide LTE network has already taken far too long but it will take longer to work out the kinks, earn people’s trust, and prove it is moving toward public safety grade. The real test of how successful the network is and becomes will be measured in years, not months.
So far, AT&T/FirstNet has achieved a momentum that will continue to propel it forward even with all the noise from a company still trying to fool states into believing there is a big monetary advantage to opting out (perhaps it has fooled itself). Yet another carrier is setting its sights on keeping as much of its public safety installed base as possible by promising its users will be able to make use of Band 14, which I am not sure is a realistic view of the world since Band 14 is licensed spectrum already licensed to FirstNet on a nationwide basis.
As states continue to opt in, it is incumbent on agencies within those states to make the best decision they can for their field forces. The good news is that the decision on an agency level is not binding as is the opt-in or opt-out decision for the states. Agencies can stay where they are, move now or in the future, or watch as things develop. We are now seeing what FirstNet was envisioned to be for a long time. What we have today is a company (AT&T) that has been awarded the 25-year contract and is moving forward to enable agencies of opt-in states to make use of first priority and then full pre-emptive priority services over its existing LTE network while the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN) is being built out along with Band 14 and 5G small cells. The network is becoming more real by the day. The agencies in each opt-in state have the best of all worlds. They can stay where they are, move to FirstNet/AT&T if they are not already on AT&T, or adopt a wait-and-see attitude. Further, unlike the states, they can hop on the FirstNet train or not. They can hop on now or in the future and if they feel they are not being provided with what they need they can jump off the train at any time.
We are also where many of us were hoping we would have been many years earlier but things didn’t work out as fast as we would have liked. It will still take time but I am confident we will, at some point in the future, reach our goal of a common broadband network across all states, territories, and tribal nations.
As an aside, if I were in charge, I would seize this opportunity to build out a world-class LMR and LTE system for the Puerto Rico communications rebuild, sharing back-end resources and building in many public-safety grade features. Only Puerto Rico has an opportunity for a complete do-over that could become the focal point for a true public safety LMR/LTE showcase.
Andrew M Seybold
©2017 Andrew Seybold, Inc.