This week I attended part of NIST’s Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR) yearly event in San Diego. At this event, the PSCR brings many of its people to discuss what they have been working on, gives time to companies that have won grants to work on specific projects, and tells stakeholders about upcoming grants and opportunities.
This year there was much discussion about Mission-Critical Push-To-Talk (MCPPT), direct-mode, and other types of mission-critical technologies. These sessions were well presented and many of the organizations being funding to work on MCPTT and direct-mode are universities that historically have been conducting great federal grant sponsored research on many different technologies. There were two things I wanted to hear about but did not hear: First, a realization that Mission-Critical PTT cannot qualify as mission-critical until it is running on a public safety-grade RF mission-critical network (which will take time for AT&T to complete). The second point is that none of the grants focus on using LMR for direct-mode instead of LTE.
The issue here is how you make direct-mode viable using LTE when the power level of the LTE devices is ¼ watt and the antennas (with few exceptions) are inside the case and sub-optimal. How can LTE devices be expected to provide the same level of direct PTT that is used daily by public safety with 5-watt LMR radios with external antennas? (While these antennas are external, most are still not equal to a unity gain antenna but they work well.) It bothers me that the PSCR and other entities are so focused on LTE being the be-all, end-all technology that they lose sight of the fact that public safety communications is about FirstNet AND LMR working together for many years to come.
I learned a long time ago to never say something could not be done, but I am a skeptic for sure when it comes to direct-mode over LTE. I would prefer to see more effort put into radios such as the Harris (not a client) XL series that includes LMR and FirstNet or Sonim’s (not a client) new expansion connector for use for LMR direct-mode. The technology is available and there are engineers who know how to make dual-mode radios. The issues are battery life, form factor, and functionality. The 4-band XL-200 from Harris I am carrying is really impressive and the user interface is the best I have seen on a portable product. Colors are used to be able to instantly see what talk group or band you are on, and the device is still only the size of a standard handheld. I am sure there will be more products such as these two coming to market and I have to wonder when the first LMR/LTE tablet for Incident Commanders will make its appearance in the marketplace.
I was pleased that PSCR is spending time on other important issues such as location services inside buildings, ways to map entire cities, and other technologies that will help both the public safety community in responding to incidents and the victims of the incidents. The Internet of Things (IoT) is gaining a lot of attention as well. I had an opportunity to talk with a number of the smart engineers who work at PSCR and discovered that more and more, PSCR is involving the vendor community working on similar technology advances. PSCR can learn from the vendors and the vendors can learn from PSCR folks.
My last comment about PSCR is that I wish it would not be so bullish on the timeframe for Mission-Critical PTT. It is excited about what it is doing but every month I receive calls from public safety agencies (as do others involved with FirstNet) asking if I can help them re-convince the mayor, city council, or board of supervisors that LMR will not go away anytime soon. Elected officials pick up ideas that LTE will soon replace LMR and that makes the public safety community’s job of keeping funding in place for their LMR systems that much tougher.
There is one state that conducted an internal audit on the need for both LMR and LTE before they committed to FirstNet and while they were wrestling with the costs of both systems. This was an internal report with no vendor or other input. The results clearly show that both LMR and LTE will need to co-exist for many years to come. The entire report can be found here. The public safety community needs to be more proactive in producing and distributing materials aimed at non-public safety elected officials explaining the reasons LMR and LTE will co-exist for many years to come. Once they understand this, and if the marketing and research organizations will tone down their rhetoric on LTE as the be-all, end-all for public safety, we can get back to the job at hand:
- See that FirstNet is fully deployed
- Convince more public safety agencies to sign up
- Work on providing connectivity between LMR systems and FirstNet
- Take PTT over FirstNet to a point where the different flavors of PTT being deployed are all compatible with each other
This is a segue way into an important announcement made during PSCR. TJ Kennedy and a host of others have been working for months on forming a new alliance that is now known as the Public Safety Technology Alliance (PSTA). TJ and a panel of some of the participants in this new organization explained that this non-profit organization was carefully put together with vendor and public safety participation and will be advocating for public safety identifying testing and adopting open-standards equipment and applications. FirstNet the Authority has always maintained the stance that only open standard products and services would be permitted on FirstNet (built by AT&T).
The PSTA will not be a standards body but it will work with the standards once they are completed or as they are being developed. The goal of the PSTA is to assist the public safety community with making sure the solutions provided that meet the standards are open-source, and that they are common so they do not introduce any operability issues into FirstNet (built by AT&T). FirstNet was designed from day one to be a Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN) where devices work regardless of where they are within or outside their own jurisdiction.
Some of the important issues already identified include:
- Common mapping issues—It seems each dispatch system has a mapping system that is not compatible with others in the area or adjacent areas.
- Mission-Critical PTT—Help ensure it becomes truly operable and does not create islands of PTT users who cannot communicate with other departments, thus negating the primary reason for FirstNet and return public safety to the era of incompatibility across departments.
TJ Kennedy, who came out of public safety and earned a reputation for being a true believer and friend of all of public safety as first the General Manager and later President of FirstNet, will be the CEO of this venture. One of his opening statements frames the goals of the organization: “Our goal is not to be a standards body, per se, but to help drive industry standards and compliance and to also ensure that public safety chooses standards, so that everyone—both in industry and public safety—knows what the standards are that are going to be followed.”
I believe this organization is important to the public safety community. FirstNet is the standard broadband pipe AT&T is building for public safety, but what runs on that pipe needs to be the same or at least operable between agencies. It won’t do any good if every agency is still using a different map format or different applications that are not compatible with each other. I see the PSTA acting as the go-between for approved standards, the development community, and the public safety community to ensure that not only is the FirstNet network nationwide and fully interoperable, but what runs over it is, too!
I enjoyed my few days at PSCR. On the whole, it is a needed entity and is doing a lot of great work. However, I think sometimes its members’ exuberance gets the best of them and ends up causing problems for public safety. PSCR is well funded, it is working with many smart companies and educational institutions, and it is doing important work. I am looking forward to next year’s event to see how far it and its partners have come in a year.
I met up with a lot of people I have known for the many years we have all been at this, and I met some new people who are there to carry on going forward. It is amazing how much has been done and listening to the FirstNet Chairwoman Sue Swenson recap all the accomplishments made in a little more than a year between FirstNet the Authority and FirstNet (built by AT&T) was a great reminder of how quickly the dream from almost twenty years ago is coming together now that there is an organization and a network provider. Sue has done a great job over the years. I have had the pleasure of being a consultant to her during her various and challenging jobs over the years and have always respected her and her understanding of how to get things done and get them done correctly the first time. She will be missed but as she said, we are entering Chapter 2 of FirstNet and she will stay involved in public safety now that it is in her blood. I hope to work with her again wherever she ends up.
I also had an opportunity to meet with some startups I have been following for a number of years. One of these is Assured Wireless (not a client). It has a product that is very well designed and provides lots of functionality including Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi Mesh, and Bluetooth, and is also a computing platform so it will run applications. It has been designed primarily to be mounted in public safety vehicles but in today’s world that also includes drones. The main reason I follow Assured Wireless is that its FirstNet radio is capable of operating in the high-power mode authorized by the FCC for band 14 which, instead of ¼ watt can go up to 1.25 watts adding more range and better data speeds, particularly in rural areas where there may be coverage issues using standard ¼-watt devices. The company has come a long way, the product is about to be launched, and it should become a popular addition to FirstNet (built by AT&T), especially in rural areas.
The Public Safety Advocate will be back on its regular weekly schedule starting next week—there are a lot of exciting things happening. As the network gains more users and as those who have been using different broadband networks realize the future for public safety broadband is FirstNet, I believe more and more agencies will sign up. FirstNet coverage is a priority for AT&T and it is putting significant resources into expanding coverage. Those who have not experienced FirstNet coverage because they are using some other network should at least give it a try and see how well it will serve their community.
Andrew M. Seybold
©2018 Andrew Seybold, Inc.