Public Safety Advocate: PSCR, More on PTT, Future Technologies

This week the Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR) organization under The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is holding its annual meeting to discuss with public safety and the vendor community how its research is progressing, how it has provided funds to others for projects and, of course, to present some technology demonstrations. Unfortunately, I am not able to attend the event this year but I will be reporting on PSCR’s findings and activities in next week’s Advocate.

Push-To-Talk Interoperability

Last week’s Advocate outlined my view of the important issue of how to ensure any and all Push-To-Talk (PTT) applications certified by FirstNet interoperate with all other PTT applications on the network. My preference is to use over-the-top push-to-talk applications since these applications can be used on devices on several networks and still communicate with each other. This is as opposed to the on-network approach favored by one of the existing approved vendors (Kodiak/Motorola) and the 3GPP as it develops its standard. 

I received a lot of email and comments that were mostly positive, but I had failed to mention Tango Tango, a push-to-talk vendor also approved by FirstNet. After the Advocate was published, I received a flurry of emails from the company and we set up a conference call. In the meantime, Tango Tango provided this snippet of its business model: “The main point is that our business is centered around exactly what you have described in this article and others in the past. We are completely carrier agnostic, have experience with every kind of radio system, and are device agnostic (iOS, Android, PC) to provide the most flexible interoperability. We provide interoperability and radio integration as a service which allows us to be able to solve these problems for agencies at a very low cost while still providing exceptional customer service.” 

New Technologies

While many public safety communications folks, FirstNet, and the FirstNet Authority are attending the PSCR conference and will report on what is new and exciting, I want to mention some technologies I have seen highlighted on Twitter. According to Fast Company, “Cheddar,” founded by former BuzzFeed president Jon Steinberg, is apparently looking for funds to invest in small start-ups with good ideas. Most recently, Cheddar has been publicizing two new devices for law enforcement. The first device can be deployed by a police unit that is positioned in front of but to the side of a vehicle being chased. When ready, out pops a set of spikes that can be maneuvered in such a way that the pursued vehicle will run over them.

The other one that caught my attention is a front-loaded torpedo-like device that mounts on a police unit and fires what looks a lot like a shotgun shell. This “shell,” is actually a GPS tracking device designed to stick to the vehicle in front of the police unit. An Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV, drone) or other law enforcement units can track the tagged vehicle or locate it when police are ready to apprehend it, thus eliminating the need for high-speed chases that endanger others. Cheddar has many other helpful devices to introduce, but as interesting as they are, and as strapped for funding as the public safety community is, I have to wonder if these innovative devices are must-have products.

At the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) Conference a few years before FirstNet, I saw what was touted as the police unit of the future. It had a plethora of gadgets including 360-video to enable officers to see anyone coming up from behind, an amazing assortment of warning lights, lots of radios, and Mobile Data Terminals (MDTs). Some provided the capability for officers to send and receive live data whenever or wherever. The unit was so full of electronics I’m not sure there was any storage space, and the price tag of all the technology was about twice the cost of the unit itself. It would be great to be able to equip our law enforcement vehicles with all this and more, but I don’t know of a single department that has that much money.

The good news here is that a considerable amount of the technology being developed for self-driving cars is finding its way into new models of cars that still require drivers. For example, the 360-degree cameras now included on 10 or more SUVs would be a great addition for law enforcement to help monitor surroundings. Automatic braking, multiple sensors, and rear-view cameras have become standard and many technologies Motorola was touting are not far into the future or as expensive as they were. 

FirstNet Authority Roadmap

I am especially interested in what the FirstNet Authority Roadmap looks like because while there is a need to advance technologies, this has to be accomplished in such a way that agencies can base their decisions on how a technology will assist them on a day-to-day basis and not how much it cost. Because budgets are tight and allocations are not easily obtained, roll-out of body cameras was slow for many agencies and it has taken a long time to equip all law enforcement with body cams. For example, in Phoenix, while not every officer is currently equipped with a body camera, the Major has committed to outfit all officers with body cams by August. The FirstNet Authority does not plan to fund body cameras or other items not directly related to public safety communications. However, it does appear that during the next reporting period with 600-plus sessions and more than 15,000 public safety representatives, the Authority plans to gather enough information to learn what public safety thinks is needed to “finish” or augment the FirstNet network (no network is ever “finished!”).

The FirstNet Authority’s most difficult challenge will be to sift through the thousands of suggestions and comments, review the plan as presented to the board, and arrive at a roadmap that melds the goals of the Authority with the wants and needs of public safety. I trust much of this effort will include FirstNet (Built with AT&T) since it is the contractor for the network for the next twenty-some years. Funds made available by the Authority can be spent by FirstNet, perhaps by states that file plans for its use, or for the Authority to purchase new technologies or in some other way enhance operation of the network. How this all works out will be interesting to follow, as will how the FirstNet Authority, FirstNet, and the public safety community arrive at a consensus of what needs to be done and how these needs will be prioritized. 

NG911 

While chatting over lunch with a vendor friend who is deeply involved in providing equipment to agencies using FirstNet, he mentioned that in some areas he covers he is finding that the FirstNet push to add new customers is being based on push-to-talk over FirstNet as opposed to PTT, data, and video. While discussing this I suggested that since he was more on the data/video side of things he, his company, and others should push for Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG911). NG911 is designed to enable receipt of data in the form of text messages, pictures, and videos from callers at Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) where it will be vetted as best as possible and then sent on to dispatch where it can be sent out to responding personnel, vehicles, and watch commanders.

This data flow will be substantial as each new NG911 system comes online. If we can obtain funding for NG911 through Congress and it is implemented, the data must be processed faster than in the past. Final standards must be worked out and there are still far too many computer-aided dispatch systems that are not compatible with each other, but these issues can be resolved. What remains is to improve the data flow to the field. Examples of such data are pictures of license plates to enable incoming units to apprehend an offending vehicle as it leaves an area or a video of a building fire that alerts the fire department of a working fire. Any information that helps first responders understand what they are heading into is better than a simple voice dispatch that provides only call information. 

Then there is data coming in from the field. A missing child’s picture obtained by law enforcement can be sent to the dispatch center and forwarded to others in the area so they can keep an eye out for the child. UAVs, or drones, are also playing a more vital role in public safety. It is not uncommon for a UAV to be used to locate an elderly person who has wandered away, search for a missing child, or fly over an incident and send aerial videos to those in the field. UAVs are able to carry communications payloads and water, and the EMS community is using UAVs to drop supplies, perform assessments, or both. 

More and better tools for public safety are enabling first responders to report to incidents with more knowledge about what they facing than ever before. In an Advocate  written around 2010, I predicted that FirstNet would give eyes to those in the field who have been operating with limited voice capabilities. We are still learning about the network’s full capabilities, coverage, and devices, and how it works. PTT over FirstNet is a great capability, but users are learning that PTT needs to be interfaced to their Land Mobile Radio (LMR) systems and that different vendors’ PTT over FirstNet services need to talk to each other. FirstNet changes everything today and promises a series of even greater tomorrows as the network approaches its full potential.

We have come a long way since FirstNet was first discussed in 2006, and we have come a long way toward a network dedicated to public safety. What lies ahead is to learn how to use this new network more effectively and more efficiently. The changes coming to wireless technology over the next few years will alter much of what we now know, but one thing that will not change is that communications saves lives of both citizens and first responders. 

Winding Down

I continue to hear about coverage issues and that FirstNet is not on a par with other networks. However, when I drive the areas with my Sierra MG-90 with two networks onboard, I find FirstNet coverage to be much improved compared to only months ago. I also read almost weekly of AT&T’s huge investments in state after state and in tribal areas. Other networks are busy implementing similar plans but FirstNet is a real incentive for AT&T to move forward faster than its competitors, which shows in the coverage I am seeing. Band 14 is also up and running in many places and is being deployed in many more.

This is redundant on my part but agencies need to understand that had another bidder won the FirstNet contract to build out only Band 14 we would not be as far along as we are. FirstNet (Built with AT&T) promised to provide full priority and pre-emption across all its LTE spectrum, build out Band 14, and now includes 5G portions of the network. As a result, the public safety community, which I feel I am part of, is well ahead of schedule. 

It’s hard to be patient. I used to have a sign that read, “God grant me Patience and I want it NOW!” Between the FirstNet Authority and FirstNet, we are far ahead of the contract milestones and I believe we will continue at this pace until the last milestone has been met. Even then, FirstNet (Built with AT&T) and the Authority will be working on what’s next, what public safety needs next, and how soon it can be made available.

Andrew M. Seybold
©2019, Andrew Seybold, Inc.

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