Public Safety Advocate: Part II — Coverage

Last week I looked at the state of the Push-To-Talk (PTT) situation and what I believe is needed to make PTT mission-critical-ready on FirstNet or other public safety broadband networks. This week’s Advocate  discusses the coverage we have, what is still needed, and some of the issues with meeting all the goals.

Let’s start with Land Mobile Radio (LMR) coverage. LMR networks have been built out over many years starting mostly after World War II. The networks were designed then and mostly now for local coverage of the area of a city or county. Later, larger regional networks sprang up to provide coverage to multiple jurisdictions and to save money. More recently, some states, including Michigan, have built out and operate statewide systems available for all jurisdictions to use. But again, coverage is designed to include the territories needing to be served. There are areas, especially in rural regions, where users run out of LMR coverage. It is not uncommon in rural and border areas to hear a unit call into the dispatch center and report that the unit will be out of radio range for some period of time. During that time, those in the unit are completely on their own and cannot even call for assistance if needed. Still, most of the U.S. population today is covered by an LMR system or two. 

This brings me to the reason for FirstNet. First is that while we have all of these LMR systems in operation, it is not unusual for law enforcement, for example, to be using UHF (450-512 MHz) and fire systems to operate on VHF (150-172 MHz). The result is that at the same incident these agencies cannot directly communicate with each other to coordinate activities. Further, other jurisdictions are operating in the 800-MHz band and now many have moved to the new 700-MHz LMR band. Public safety has dealt with these issues for many, many years; my first article about this was written in 1981. What brought this situation to the forefront of public knowledge was the tragic loss of life of citizens, police, and fire personnel during the 9/11 incidents. 

The 9/11 commission met and issued a report—interoperability for public safety was one of the ten recommendations. This issue was further amplified during hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. However, it still took years for Congress to act and allocate the spectrum needed along with some of the funds, then another five years before FirstNet was able to issue its request for proposal for a private-sector partner. During this time, those of us involved in related activities believed the winning bidder would begin building an entirely new public safety network using the spectrum allocated by Congress, which is known as a portion of the D Block of spectrum in the 700-MHz band adjacent to the existing LMR 700-MHz spectrum. 

Coverage

While waiting impatiently for FirstNet to decide on the winner, there were more delays while FirstNet had to defend itself in U.S. Court. We still expected the winning bidder to build out a Band 14-only network over the course of the five years allocated in the RFP for what would be a greenfield build (starting at ground zero). Instead, when the RFP was awarded to AT&T, we began to find out more. That the contract was awarded to AT&T was perceived as a positive development as AT&T had been a staunch supporter of public safety broadband since the beginning. And it was like unwrapping the biggest holiday gift possible when we learned AT&T had offered up all of its LTE spectrum for use by each state that decided to opt into the network and that priority and pre-emption would be offered over the entire breadth of its LTE systems. This meant several things. First, FirstNet could go live much sooner than if it had been a Band 14-only build, and second, AT&T would add Band 14 to its sites going forward. Later, AT&T also announced that every expansion of the network using LTE and 5G would become available to the public safety community. So, not only was public safety starting with a nationwide operating network, enhancements to the network anywhere would include public safety.

As the states were trying to decide whether they should opt in, AT&T, now known as FirstNet (Built with AT&T) worked with each state on documents the states had prepared under the direction of FirstNet The Authority that showed how much coverage to expect from the new broadband system. Some states were conservative in their requirements and a few wanted the state blanketed with broadband coverage. These issues were discussed and hashed out and eventually all fifty states and six territories opted into FirstNet.

The network was launched with the coverage available. AT&T’s network was nationwide because it had millions of citizens and business users on the network and had to keep on par with competitors, which it did except in a few areas, mostly within the western states. Thus, the starting point for FirstNet was far better than expected though in many cases it still did not satisfy the public safety community. FirstNet (Built with AT&T) then began to build out and enhance the network on a nationwide basis. New towers, adding Band 14 to existing towers, and increased funding for network build-outs have come a long way in only twenty-one months after contract signing. However, one thing I know for sure is that there has never been a wireless network that has been declared finished! 

FirstNet (Built with AT&T) will continue to fill in dead spots, expand coverage where it is non-existent and needed, and develop rural broadband expansions. The law states that the FirstNet network is required to provide service in rural areas as well as in metro and suburban areas. Congress did this so the private partner would not simply build out Band 14 where it makes money and not cover rural areas that cost money. The entire premise behind the private/public partnership is that the RFP winner could deploy the system and then be able to use the extra capacity of Band 14, when it was not needed by public safety, to make money for the network operator that could, hopefully, recoup most of the $30+ billion build-out and operational costs. The FirstNet Authority is also paying FirstNet up to $7.5 billion, which was set aside by Congress not from the U.S. general fund but from receipts of spectrum auctions. At the end of the day, the network is not costing taxpayers a dime.

Still, there is not always agreement between FirstNet (Built with AT&T) and the public safety community when it comes to coverage. However, sometimes the coverage turns out to be better than LMR coverage. One highway patrol agency, when it goes north into remote areas of the state, had a difficult time communicating with its LMR system and has found that FirstNet is there, covering those areas better than its LMR system. This increase in coverage can be attributed to several things. First is the aggressive build-out by FirstNet and, second, AT&T coverage exists in more remote areas where there are tourists who expect cell phone coverage. 

FirstNet actually has two sets of people making suggestions to FirstNet/AT&T when it comes to coverage. The first, of course, is the public safety community. Second are citizens and business users of the network who report poor coverage and issues with the network. This helps ATT/FirstNet to concentrate on where it needs to either build out more capacity or more cell sites.

Rural America

Those who have been long-time subscribers (thank you!) know that in addition to my focus on the PTT aspects of FirstNet, I am also concerned with helping expand coverage into rural America. FirstNet cannot cover every square mile of the United States, and when commercial towers are built, they traditionally have to be justified by the number of people who will make use of the tower. Building for public safety in rural areas is different. The matrix of population versus cell sites goes out the window and sites have to be built where there is no financial reward for doing so—that is part of the FirstNet contract.

It is unfortunate that the federal government has multiple agencies that administer grants for rural broadband (Federal Communications Commission (FCC), National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), Department of Agriculture, and others). Some of these agencies seem to believe fiber to the farm is what is needed. However, when you talk to farmers you find they want wireless in their fields so they can be more efficient in what they are doing to grow their crops. Fiber to a school means the school has Internet, but once the students board the bus to go home, they usually don’t have any broadband access.

I have written a number of articles about these issues and there was some pending legislation in Congress to provide a new agency to oversee all of these programs but I have not heard about it recently and cannot find a new reference indicating this legislation is alive and well. We are right back where we have been for many years with one difference: We have FirstNet and spectrum.

FirstNet must build in rural America. It could build out in more places and enter into agreements with ISPs, rural telcos, and power carriers, except that none of the organizations that handle grants have ever heard of FirstNet or don’t understand the importance of the spectrum and resources FirstNet brings to bear. Perhaps the new management at FirstNet the Authority can work with these agencies to find ways to increase their participation in areas where FirstNet is being built out.

Several years ago, I did an evaluation of a west coast county. When FirstNet builds, the cost of the build and operations of the network for twenty-five years will be about $5million a month in the hole. However, if we could channel the poverty-level programs to FirstNet/AT&T and had only a 40-percent uptake in subscribers, the minus millions would turn into positive millions AND we would be serving more of the rural community including schools, health facilities, and more. I keep hoping someone or some organization will take these ideas and induce those in DC to pay attention. There is enough money in all the grants to solve all the rural broadband problems but the grants all differ and none have included funding to maintain the services after they are built. There is an opportunity here for both FirstNets if they choose to take it.

FirstNet (Built with AT&T) will never be finished since it will add coverage and capacity to the network for years to come. Where coverage is to be expanded will be determined by FirstNet, hopefully with assistance from the public safety community and citizen users. It will continue to be enhanced and hardened to withstand more, and to provide the level of data and video that was anticipated by all of us. If PTT and other Push-To-X technologies can be added to further enhance FirstNet, so much the better.

FirstNet (Built with AT&T) has now responded to multiple hurricanes and wildland fires by providing outstanding communications. It was used during the events leading up to the funeral of President George H. W. Bush and will continue to be called upon for occasions such as this. As it is, citizens are finding that following on the coattails of first responders for communications is not a bad plan.

Final Thoughts

FirstNet is not our only network. It works well and does what it was designed to do. However, LMR networks are not going away. Nevertheless, spectrum already allocated to public safety is under attack. Today it is the T-Band giveback, the 4.9-GHz spectrum, and the 6-GHZ spectrum used for point-to-point communications. We cannot afford to lose any of these nor can we afford to lose any of our existing LMR spectrum. FirstNet and LMR are partners offering robust, interoperable communications and the spectrum they use needs to be protected. Think of LMR and FirstNet, offering coverage that overlaps. Each serves as a redundant element of the overall communications offering to public safety.

Next week’s Advocate will be Part III of this three-part series and will look at devices and applications, and discuss some of the remaining must-haves. The holidays are upon us, there will be no Advocate between Christmas and the New Year but it will return the following week. Happy Holidays to all!

Andrew M. Seybold
©2018 Andrew Seybold, Inc.

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