Public Safety Advocate: PTT Corrections, CHP Joins FirstNet, Smarter Smartphones, Rural Broadband Feeding Frenzy

First and foremost, Tango Tango Push-To-Talk (PTT) is FirstNet-certified for both the Android operating system and iOS (Apple), not Android-only as stated in the list of vendors that have met FirstNet’s rigorous evaluation. I also neglected to note that Tango Tango, JPS VIA, and ESChat are the only FirstNet-certified PTT applications I am aware of that are fully interoperable with each other. 

Tango Tango has been growing quickly as a result of working primarily with smaller departments that want interoperability with Land Mobile Radio (LMR) and PTT over FirstNet. Tango Tango also enables fire departments to send alert tones to FirstNet smartphones as well as normal alerts to pagers. 

CHP Joins FirstNet Family

This past week, FirstNet (Built with AT&T) announced that the California Highway Patrol (CHP) has joined FirstNet. This means the CHP will have full interoperability with any and all California state and local public-safety agencies that are also FirstNet users. This is an important step as the CHP is still operating on the 40–50-MHz portion of the public-safety spectrum and has had to install Portable Area Communication Repeaters (PAC-RTs or packrats) in all its vehicles to enable officers to use handheld radios to talk back to their vehicles which, in turn, talk to CHP dispatch centers. This type of LMR is used by law enforcement and fire agencies to extend the range of handheld LMR radios. And, this is a perfect segue-way to the next portion of this week’s Advocate.

Can Smartphones be Smarter?

Again, a major difference between LMR and FirstNet/broadband networks is that LMR radios are usually controlled by an operator when switching from one radio channel to another. However, since P25 trunked systems are network-controlled, off-network communications channels are still selected by users.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my vision of what I see becoming the mainstream communications device for public safety. Essentially, this device would be controlled by both LMR and FirstNet/broadband networks except when off-network communications are needed. 

The reference to PAC-RT devices above started me thinking about using smartphones and tablets along with FirstNet MegaRange™ on the FirstNet network. Currently, MegaRange, which uses Band-14 High-Power User Equipment (HPUE) that transmits stronger signals, is only available for Band-14 mobile devices. Using high-power devices extends Band-14 public-safety broadband cell site coverage by up to 80%, thus providing much higher data speeds in the uplink direction so even at the cell edge, data rates are considerably higher than when using typical (0.25 watt) smartphones or tablets. 

I have written several articles about high-power devices and a white paper about the AirgainConnect high-power antenna system. I stated in these that I thought the best way to maximize the increased performance of MegaRange devices is to connect them to a mobile router. (Cradlepoint, Sierra Wireless, and Peplink offer FirstNet-certified routers.) Most MegaRange-equipped routers are able to create a Wi-Fi bubble around a vehicle. Smartphones within range of a Wi-Fi bubble can talk to the vehicle via Wi-Fi and use the vehicle’s MegaRange router to send uplink and downlink information through the FirstNet Band-14 MegaRange device. This means smartphones and tablets will have better range back to the network and will be able to send data and video at higher speeds. 

The difference between an LMR PAC-RT-to-mobile radio connection and a Wi-Fi-to-MegaRange connection is that since PAC-RTs are smart, only one vehicle’s PAC-RT will be active at any one time. All PAC-RTs are designed to “talk to each other,” so other vehicles at a scene will be in standby mode waiting for communications that are directed to them. 

To use a smartphone’s Wi-Fi to communicate with a MegaRange device in a vehicle, you usually need to turn off the cellular radio portion of the phone, go to Wi-Fi settings, select the Wi-Fi bubble’s Service-Set Identifier (SSID), and then enter the correct password. However, if you are pre-assigned to the vehicle, the SSID and password should have already been entered and stored on your smartphone or tablet. This is also true for turning a phone into a hotspot. The SSID and password are extremely important because they block unauthorized access to vehicles’ MegaRange devices. 

I am wondering if smartphones and MegaRange devices could be made to automatically pair in the same way as PAC-RTs pair with handhelds, and if MegaRange devices could be programmed to automatically connect to Wi-Fi for the relay. 

Taking this one step further, perhaps vehicles at a scene could be automatically set up as a mesh network on Wi-Fi, thereby extending the range of smartphones and tablets out to a much wider area.  Perhaps this type of mesh network could also be used to improve in-building communications back to the FirstNet network. 

These are only some ideas to mull over. Perhaps some of our great wireless engineers will find ways to enable these and more “smarts” while we are waiting for all networks to be IP-based. Then, networks could be integrated into a smart network for Next-Generation 9-1-1 (NG911), FirstNet, LMR, and Wi-Fi so users won’t have to spend time re-setting their devices. These networks would simply and automatically deliver information to first responders when and where they need it. 

Digital Divide / Rural Broadband 

Since early 2021, the digital divide has become a hot topic at the federal and state level. A large amount of funding is included in the proposed Infrastructure bill and it seems like more bills related to broadband access are introduced in Congress almost weekly. Along with this activity, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), National Telecommunications and Information Association (NTIA), Department of Agriculture, states, or counties announce plans to move forward with their own funding or creation of an organization to review the needs of a specific area. 

In addition to expanded broadband services to close the digital divide, we also need to provide broadband access for poverty-level citizens as quickly as possible. This week, organizations including the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) have been busy issuing fairly consistent press releases and statements that deserve our attention. This frenzy began with a statement within the proposed Infrastructure bill and by others that acceptable data speeds should be at least 100 MBPS both up to the network and down to the device. This puts wireless and cable providers at a disadvantage because their systems normally provide higher data speeds down to the customer but not back to the network. While many who are planning to roll out broadband services believe only fiber to the premise should be deployed, I find this extremely short-sighted. For whatever reason, those who distribute funds for rural broadband also seem to think fiber is the only acceptable solution for closing the digital divide. 

I concur with recent press releases from companies that are developing broadband services. Running fiber to the premise is extremely costly, especially in rural areas where a single farm might require a run of ten or more miles of fiber. A better way to build out rural areas is to run fiber to a hub or tower and then transmit wirelessly for the last mile or so. Isn’t it better to connect more people at different speeds than to spend $billions more than necessary because someone has decided fiber is the only answer?

We have so many ways to provide broadband today—fiber, microwave, multiple types of wide-area and local-area wireless, little low-earth satellites, and more. The way to go about closing the digital divide is to mix and match technologies to come up with the best solution for each area needing coverage. If we simply run fiber, we will waste another twenty-plus years attempting to extend broadband to rural and poverty-level areas. 

Before broadband service can be provided, each area needs to be systematically assessed to determine what is needed, then the most practical and economical way to meet these needs has to be integrated into a build plan. Once this is done, funding can be secured for build-out and deployment as well as ongoing costs in areas that will not be able to support monthly costs of operation, upgrades, and expansion of services. Unfortunately, those responsible for awarding federal grants and loans are short-sighted and, risking failure of the network, they do not usually provide funds for ongoing expenses.

By establishing a single agency, staffing it with knowledgeable people, and combining all the funding available today, we should be able to close the digital divide within a few years, even without the $65 Billion, and not have to wait ten or twenty years from now. 

While federal money, state funds, local buy-ins, and public/private partnerships all offer ways to fund progress, careful planning and follow-through are vitally important. We need to make sure any and all technologies that are rolled out are compatible. What we don’t need is Tribal Nations or small communities being served by one-off broadband services that are not compatible. Further, as broadband becomes more pervasive, those who finally become connected will want to be able to move around nationwide and still have access to broadband services.  

If the next big thing is solving the digital divide, which we have been attempting to do for many years, let’s at least approach it with the idea of mixing and matching technologies so we can get the job done faster and more economically than by simply running fiber in every situation. 

Smartphones Connected to Satellites

Several contenders for satellite broadband service recently caught my eye when they claimed on their websites that they will be offering services directly to users’ smartphones via “cell towers in the sky.” One service, “Space Mobile,” claims it will connect a standard smartphone to its system and offer coverage both “inside and out.” I find this hard to believe since satellite cellphone reception while inside a building seems nearly impossible. Unknowns are the portion of RF spectrum it intends to use, whether new smartphones that include the spectrum will have to be built, and whether the spectrum is being used for cellular broadband systems. 

Over the next few years, we are promised cell towers in the sky and little LEOs whizzing over our heads sending 5G broadband signals to our mobile devices and our home antennas. I am skeptical about affordable broadband from above, but long ago I learned never to say never. So, I will be watching developments and trying various flavors of broadband in the sky. Providing broadband to every inch of the world is a worthy goal—It would be great if works. 

Winding Down

By mandate, the FCC is to be made up of three commissioners from the sitting President’s party and two from the minority party. At present, there are two Democrat and two Republican commissioners and it is time to nominate the fifth. It is also time for the administration to nominate Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel to be the official chair. During her tenure at the FCC, she has voted to impose and maintain net neutrality and to close what she calls the “homework gap” by extending broadband to every child in the country.

Acting Chairwoman Rosenworcel has been doing a wonderful job since she took this temporary post. She has returned the FCC to where it should be—making sure every type of organization that needs access to RF spectrum is treated fairly. Further, she is receiving very high marks from many quarters including public-safety. If you agree that the Acting Chairwoman should be the official chair, make your thoughts known by first contacting the White House administration, which will make that decision, and then your senators since they will approve her nomination.

On another note, I find it disconcerting that broadband network operators that did not bid on the FirstNet RFP are still making waves and trying their best to integrate their own core with the FirstNet core, which I and others believe would be a disaster waiting to happen. It is already possible to exchange text messages, data, and voice calls between all the broadband networks operating in the United States. The only other feature that might be added is for first responders not yet using FirstNet to be able to join FirstNet push-to-talk groups during multi-agency incidents. As more and more agencies join FirstNet, core integration will become less and less relevant.

For many years, vendors have fought among each other as they have tried to protect their share of customers. This delayed universal standards for interoperability on P25 systems for almost 25 years. It is beyond time for all vendors to understand that the goal should be to provide first responders with the tools they need to complete their tasks. There is enough business to go around without having to resort to attempts to eliminate others from the marketplace.

As I have pointed out before, the public-safety community has come together like never before. It first worked toward establishing a Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN) and this was achieved in 2012 when the network was authorized and spectrum was reserved. The public-safety community continues to work together for the betterment of the entire public-safety community. It is time for those who profess to be pro-public safety to work together toward the common goal of providing communications tools that will help save lives and property.

Until next week…

Andrew M. Seybold
©2021, Andrew Seybold, Inc.


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