Public Safety Advocate: Off-Network Communications Revisited, Rural Broadband

Welcome to September, 2020. I wonder what else 2020 will throw our way. Ignited mostly by lightening, wildfires continue in California, Arizona, and other states, two damaging storms made landfall in the Gulf of Mexico, and the Covid-19 pandemic continues to take lives. First responders are reporting to wherever assistance is needed, FirstNet (Built with AT&T) is moving its deployable assets around to provide coverage where it is needed, and while some radio towers have been toppled or destroyed, it appears most Land Mobile Radio (LMR) systems are still in service. Access to both LMR and FirstNet for nationwide coordination and coverage is providing redundancy and delivering increased communications capabilities.

However, there has been little progress in closing the rural digital divide in spite of the pandemic with work-from-home and school-from-home programs, telemedicine, and other demands that should have sparked a valid national effort to expand broadband services to rural America. 

Revisiting Off-Network Communications

During the IWCE virtual conference, in published articles, and on social media, some continue to promote the idea that (real soon now) public safety will be able to leave its LMR devices behind and rely solely on the FirstNet network. This prediction is once again coming from pundits, technologists, and others who have never been in the field when things were tense — NOT from first responders. Since I strongly disagree with this assessment from a public-safety point of view, I decided to reprint portions of the June 4, 2020, Advocate detailing requirements for off-network communications. The entire subject of off-network communications, or simplex, appears to be being ignored or downplayed by those who do not actually use public-safety communications systems. 

Some posts on social media about Mission-Critical Push-to-Talk (MCPTT), which is beginning to make its way onto FirstNet, include discussions about “off-network LTE” or “ProSe.” When I point out that ProSe does not provide the level of off-network communications required by first responders, I am told relays can be used to increase ProSe coverage. My rebuttal is that the connection will fail if another first responder acts as the relay point and s/he is ordered to change locations. Others tell me things are in the works at 3GPP and, of course, 1.25-watt High-Power User Equipment (HPUE) can be used on FirstNet’s Band 14. Neither option is available today. Handheld high-power devices remain a long way off due to battery-life issues, and 3GPP still has not addressed off-network public-safety-grade requirements. 

Another point missed by those who predict LTE/5G will replace LMR is that the people who control city, county, state, or federal agency purse strings hear this prediction and when presented with budget requests to upgrade or replace an existing LMR system, they push back at having to continue to fund LMR. This creates nightmares for chiefs and administrative personnel for law, fire, and EMS agencies, which then have to spend precious time trying to convince their elected officials and others that public safety needs both FirstNet/LTE and LMR in place until there is a satisfactory off-network solution for FirstNet/LTE/5G. Even then, I remain a proponent of maintaining both FirstNet and LMR. 

FirstNet’s contribution to public-safety communications has and will continue to be significant as we move forward. As has been demonstrated this year, FirstNet and LMR networks operating alongside each other provides a greater level of redundancy and, especially when interconnected, the combination of the two delivers much more to public safety than the two networks alone. As we add Next-Generation 9-1-1 (NG911) and FirstNet and LMR systems are interwoven, public safety will have a world-class set of communications capabilities for citizens reporting incidents, first responders in the field, and those who support our public-safety professionals. 

Off-Network Communications ArticleJune 4, 2020

“Call it off-network, talk-around, simplex, one-to-one, one-to-many, or peer-to-peer for IT folks, it is all the same. Regardless of how good a network or series of networks is, there are times when those in the field need to take their communications off the network(s) and down to a local level. Public-safety radio communications began with one-way from the stationhouse to the vehicle and then evolved in the 1930s to two-way radio base station-to-mobile and then mobile-to-mobile. After a number of technological advances, we now have multiple networks. Land mobile radio handles voice only (and some very low speed data) and FirstNet (Built with AT&T) and other broadband networks handle voice in the form of dial-up and Push-To-Talk (PTT) as well as text, data, video, and still pictures. Even so, there are times when public-safety personnel are out of network coverage, when some are in coverage and some are not, and when within network coverage but need to communicate on a more local basis.

Some public-safety agencies do not use off-network or use it rarely, but many agencies use off-network communications for every incident they respond to and many fire-service incident dispatches include a working off-network channel. Off-network is often preferred by swat teams, detectives, and other units that need to stay in contact with their group without taking up network resources. Another reason is to keep it local so fewer people with radio scanners or Internet rebroadcasting services can listen to an incident in progress. The issue of eavesdropping is non-existent with broadband networks so far, especially FirstNet since a great deal of time and effort has been spent to ensure FirstNet is a secure network.

One of the most compelling uses for off-network is to communicate in areas where the network cannot or does not penetrate. Having plenty of network signal standing in front of a building does not mean public-safety professionals will have network coverage as they enter the building, descend to a basement, or move deeper into the building. Today, both LMR and FirstNet are penetrating deeper into buildings than ever before and networks or landlords are installing in-building communications, especially in large buildings. However, wireless networks are not always available inside buildings, in sub-basements or underground parking garages, or in rural areas not covered by wireless networks. Off-network communications is a must-have for most or all of the public-safety community.

My Advocate last week discussing push-to-talk interoperability drew a number of positive comments as well as questions about off-network coverage and progress in this area. There has been some progress in off-network communications and if APCO and IWCE (Although now the web-site says it will be 100% online) are both held in August as planned, I expect to see a number of companies adding off-network communications capabilities by combining LMR and FirstNet devices. We have already seen how L3Harris and others have gone about building LMR and LTE into a single device. Others have dual-network LMR/broadband products and there will be more, at lower price points, especially for FirstNet and one segment of public-safety LMR spectrum, e.g., FirstNet/VHF, FirstNet/UHF, and FirstNet 700/800 devices. These dual-purpose radios sell for less than a single radio that covers all three LMR spectrum segments plus FirstNet. 

Some vendors are employing Bluetooth so an LTE device and an LMR device can be controlled by one or the other. Motorola LEX and APX handheld LMR radios are a good example of this type of “integration.” Sonim previously announced a “sled” for off-network communications but the first version is on 900 MHz and very low-powered unlicensed spectrum. I am not convinced Sonim’s website description is completely accurate as it reads: “Communicate with up to 100 co-workers within a 1-mile radius without cellular coverage.” Sonim claims it is using a 1-watt transmitter so perhaps it will cover up to a mile, but I am not sure this would meet the off-network criteria I set forth in a previous Advocate. Perhaps Sonim’s next sled should be designed to operate on VHF or UHF in a simplex-only mode. 

Battery life is the primary concern when combining devices or using the high power permitted on FirstNet Band 14 in a handheld. Most handheld LMR devices are designed to provide a typical shift-plus of power and have removable, replaceable batteries. Smartphone and tablet batteries last much longer than a shift unless they are being heavily used. (A few including the Sonim XP8 and Kyocera smartphone have removable batteries.) Adding high-power Band 14 ProSe (3GPPs off-network specification) will require a much heftier battery and an external antenna to attain the best possible distance and building penetration. I am not privy to what 3GPP has in store for ProSe, but as I have said before, as it exists today, ProSe is basically useless to the public-safety community. There is no way it could pass any of the tests I have determined necessary before public safety will trust an off-network device for daily use.

Future Devices

There is a need today and far into the future for robust off-network communications capable of multiple channels or groups since during major incidents some public-safety groups want and need their own “private” channel(s) to manage their portion of the mission. During a hostage incident, they might need one channel for swat, one for crowd control, another for hostage negotiations, and a few more. The greatest number of direct, off-network channels are needed during wildfires as the Incident Command adds layers of management and deployment. In some California fires where I provided volunteer communications support, all available VHF simplex channels were assigned resulting in sixty to seventy channels being used. 

I do not believe public safety would welcome a device with limited off-network communications capabilities without some reservations. What is needed is a single device that provides both on- and off-network capabilities. There is an ongoing conversation within the public-safety community about how many communications devices those in the field really need to carry. Some recent articles have made the case that FirstNet or LTE is the only device needed, but I have to assume those leaning in that direction do not use off-network or have not thought about how devices are used in the field on a day-to-day basis. Others favor a single dual-LMR/FirstNet LTE device. The last category is those who prefer two separate devices: an LMR device that has long been their lifeline and a smartphone so they can be better informed while in the field. 

Age and experience influence device choices. People who have been on the job for many years have been using LMR devices in their vehicles and handhelds since they joined. Their experience with smartphones and tablets usually started with a fixed notebook computer in their vehicle and a data connection over commercial broadband. When they started using cell phones and then smartphones and tablets in their personal lives, they often used their personal smartphones while on duty. Today, if their department is signed up on FirstNet, they carry both LMR devices and smartphones or tablets. 

The next, younger, group of first responders grew up with cell phones and transitioned to smartphones and tablets as they became available. I have been told by some within public safety that seasoned personnel are teaching newer, younger recruits how to use LMR while the younger first responders are teaching the old guard how to make better use of their smartphones and tablets. The next wave of people to join the ranks of the public-safety community will have grown up with smartphones and tablets being second nature to them. As these younger members move up the ladder, it will be interesting to see who will want single devices, multiple devices, or two different devices, which seems to be today’s preference. 

All this suggests there will be several waves of devices brought to market and put into use. We will learn a lot from these but I, for one, do not believe we will find overwhelming support for any one solution: a FirstNet-only device, a combined FirstNet/LMR device, or a two-device world for the foreseeable future. Vendors that take the time to understand the direction the public-safety community is heading will be best able to design its next-generation-or-later devices. On-duty public-safety professionals live in a very different world from civilians. Time is often critical, assistance is a priority, tracking who is doing what and where is imperative, and being able to dictate or write after-action reports are all activities that need to meet precise standards. 

When I worked for General Electric Mobile Radio (now L3Harris) in the mid-1970s, Cincinnati’s fire department wanted to provide every fire fighter with a “scene of the fire” radio communications system. The idea was for a handheld radio to be fitted into a pocket sewn onto the turn-out-gear, a bone-conduction microphone to be attached to the front middle of the helmet, and an over-the-ear speaker. Setcom was chosen to provide the headgear and sent a sample helmet with over-the-ear pieces covering both ears. The fire chief took one look and said no firefighter he knew would accept having both ears covered. After we worked with Setcom to modify the headgear for a single earpiece, the firefighters really liked it.

The covering-both-ears lesson has stuck with me over the years yet I saw a new speaker/microphone announced by a vendor that combined LMR and FirstNet audio into a single speaker/mic using two cords to connect to the devices. I think this is a non-starter. In order to listen to both radios, there must be a Bluetooth earpiece in both ears. I like the idea of two audios using Bluetooth, but not when it requires putting earbuds in both ears. The lesson here is that designing a product for the public-safety community without input from the community makes little sense. However, talking with one department or one seasoned expert is not enough because the wants and needs of the public-safety community change from area to area, region to region, and between law, fire, and EMS services. Taking the time and effort to ferret out how your product might be received means conferring with potential users, and as your product progresses, revisiting them to make sure you are on the right track. Above all else, remember that the public-safety community is a group of professionals who run toward danger and do not have time to mess around with complex technology. They want the products they need and they need them to work well. Finally, you only have one chance. If you mess it up, the public-safety community will remember it for many years.

Where Devices Are Headed 

We don’t know now, and we might not know even when we get there. In the meantime, some new devices will work well and be welcomed and some will collect dust on warehouse shelves. My vision of where we should be headed is described in an article for MissionCritical Communications: “If all these various types of communications are put together in a synergistic, IP-based system and field personnel carry devices that help them navigate to the specific network they need when they need it, public-safety communications will remain what it is today — a tool for public safety. Law enforcement, fire personnel, EMS, and other first and second responders can perform their tasks without having to think about which communications method is being used. The networks in concert will deliver the content to the appropriate people at the right time.”

I am suggesting a set of smart networks sending and receiving information to and from smart devices carried or worn by public-safety professionals and those in the field that do not require changing channels or even looking at the device. Perhaps a heads-up display would work, but I see the end-game as a set of networks and devices that include off-network one-to-one and one-to-many communications that are intelligent enough to provide the right communications to the right people at the right time. Anyone who believes we can do without off-network communications has not been in a sub-basement surrounded by fire knowing the only way to summon help is via off-network communications that are sufficiently robust so others will hear and respond. 

We have the communications tools, technology advances, and users who need what the wireless community provides. Now we need to put it all together so interoperability and on-network versus off-network are no longer issues. If we all work toward this goal it will be achievable sooner rather than later or never.”

Additional Thoughts

A lot of progress is being made in the dual-device world, and high-power user devices are about to start shipping. While today they are designed to boost coverage of in-vehicle modems/routers, I believe other form factors, starting with back-backs with larger batteries, will find their way into the market only a few months after the release of the first mobile HPUE. However, I am still of the mind that off-network communications, which is vital to all public-safety agencies, needs to be kept on LMR for many years to come. Products that will provide only some of what is needed in the way of off-network communications in the rush to market won’t be embraced by public safety. I hope those who allege FirstNet is all first responders want and need will sit down and talk to those in the field who use off-network communications every day before they write or say any more about off-network communications.

Rural Broadband

Closing the rural digital divide is still a work in process. As I look at the progress that has been made this year including updates to FCC broadband maps, I am truly disappointed as are many others. We had hoped the pandemic with work-from-home, school-from-home programs, telemedicine, and other demands would spur Congress and the feds to put together a valid national effort to extend broadband services to rural America. I expected counties and states to initiate dialogs with FirstNet (Built with AT&T) about partnering to expand the FirstNet build-out so more rural areas could be covered, and I expected Congress to finally address the rural digital divide given the increased need for access. 

However, we are still seeing pictures in the media of children sitting in asphalt parking lots of food stores, for example, to be able to access WiFi. Further, many of those promoting rural broadband seem to be fixated on fiber, fiber, and more fiber. Of course, it would be great to have fiber run to every house, farm, and business in rural America, but the price tag is beyond reality. While little Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites might be an answer, external antennas and modems are needed to carry their signal indoors and the systems are too far in the future (although some satellites have been launched). Recent test results indicate funding from the FCC and others will not be forthcoming because little LEO satellite systems do not yet meet required uplink and downlink standards. 

The new mid-band spectrum holds promise, a portion of the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum has been successfully auctioned, and more activity is on the way. 5G low band, which is being touted as the best way to extend broadband into rural areas, is being built out, and the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) and other organizations are doing what they can to provide broadband where it is needed. However, without a national plan and a pooling of the resources and funds sitting at the federal level, we will continue to limp along. At the current rate, it will take years to close the digital divide. Or to put it another way, students who are sitting in fast food parking lots today will probably have graduated by the time they have the access we could have provided in only a year or two if rural broadband became a nationwide objective. Here it is, the first week of September 2020, schools went virtual more than six months ago, and we still cannot provide Internet access for millions of students! 

The goal of a Nationwide Public-Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN) was reached only after all within the first-responder community came together, walked the halls of Congress, and spent time with the FCC and the Executive Branch. Rural America needs to follow the same model to finally gain the broadband access it needs!

Until next week…

Andrew M. Seybold
©2020, Andrew Seybold, Inc.

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2 Comments on "Public Safety Advocate: Off-Network Communications Revisited, Rural Broadband"

  1. Randy K.aminsky | September 3, 2020 at 3:21 pm | Reply

    I remember back in 1991 receiving a phone call asking me to participate in a fact finding forum hosted by FleetCall (which later became Nextel) to assist in the development of a new handheld communications product for public safety. About 18 months later I was contacted again to evaluate a new communications product for a final evaluation prior to introduction to the public safety market. This device was to replace the cellphone, digital pager, and LMR all in one slick package. But several questions about the unit, some that were expressed in the previous meeting still existed. But this time rather than being met with openness, I found my queries about public safety applications, the devices ruggedness, battery life, and off-network operation were met little concern and I soon found myself looking for an exit strategy knowing that the meeting was being steered by marketing people and I was just a distraction to their agenda.

    Today we have the same people leading the discussion to migrate public safety away from LMR. yes, the faces and names have changed, but until they step up and answer questions such as ProSe and battery life, and express some real concerns I share with others in my field, their names and looks will soon be forgotten. I’ve served in just about every role in public safety (including using Andy’s BioCom telemetry radio), from low band to P25, frontline to command vehicle.

    I often think back to the Apollo 13 movie where the NASA engineers dump a box of parts onto a table and make the statement “This is what we have to work with”. Maybe a method to answer the question of ProSe requires the same thinking.

  2. Randy thanks great post, and I am sure you also remember when Nextel touted their off-network 900 MHz unlicensed attempt at off-network communications which never provided the type of off-network communications needed. I would very much like to see those who, as you stated, are pushing for LTE to replace LMR to review my off-network tests and come back when they can PROVE that off-network LTE can meet every one of them, until then, what we have available is off-network on LMR and a very good broadband network in FirstNet/LTE which are complimentary to each other.

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