As FirstNet moves forward with more than twenty opt-ins, and the network begins to take shape, questions remain about the types of devices that will be needed and wanted by the public safety community. The original vison put forth by many of us working on the project prior to Congress allocating the spectrum or creating FirstNet is that at some point a single device would be carried by all first responders to access both broadband and Land Mobile Radio (LMR) systems. Why burden those who already carry a belt full of gear with yet another device?
However, during recent conversations with some of those advocating for public safety broadband and with many of today’s first responders, it appears as though the vision of one person, one device may not always be the best choice. It is clear that we will start with existing land mobile radio portables, smartphones, and tablets. AT&T has made it simple for opt-in states. An agency simply signs up and its users receive new Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) cards for their existing smartphones (if they are compatible with AT&T’s spectrum). Over time, as AT&T builds out FirstNet Band 14, new devices can be purchased.
There are already several offerings on the market, specifically from Sonim, that meet the need for hardened, long battery life devices and more are coming from Motorola, Harris, Tait, JVCKenwood, and others. LMR vendors are working on cross-over devices or devices that communicate back-and forth between LMR and LTE networks. Discussions I have had indicate more than ever that there will need to be multiple types of devices, offering multiple types of services or combinations of services. One of the issues with this, of course, is that vendors do not like to build a few each of many different types of devices and would rather build many of one type. One of the reasons LMR radios are so expensive is that there are so many different radios needed for different portions of the LMR spectrum that production costs remain high.
One of the main reasons LTE was chosen for the public safety broadband network was to take advantage of the lower cost of devices. Even adding Band 14 (FirstNet) into a smartphone will not increase the price substantially when it is built into millions of devices to be used by both public safety and commercial network subscribers. Note that Band 14 will be used to augment the existing AT&T commercial spectrum when it is not needed by the public safety community, which has full pre-emptive access to Band 14 and, in fact, all AT&T LTE spectrum when needed.
The above points to the fact that FirstNet-capable LTE-only devices will be the least expensive for a long time to come. This would include both handheld devices such as smartphones and tablets, which I believe will add much more in terms of instant information incident command will be able to use to make better decisions. One issue that still appears to be eluding typical smartphone vendors is the fact that first responders do not want to (will not) tie up both hands when using a device. In some cases, such a requirement could put first responders in harm’s way with no ability to protect themselves. Many who have grown up using smartphones don’t think anything of using two hands to text, set up and send a video, or gather information. However, it is different when working in the field.
When FirstNet first became the law of the land I was visited by one of the largest smartphone vendors wanting to show its new police-ready smartphone. It looked pretty much like its other devices, sleek and clean, but it had a card reader at the top. They very proudly showed me that a law enforcement officer could walk up to a vehicle he or she had stopped, take the driver’s license, and simply slide it through the card reader to request information. They felt it was a great advancement that would save the officer a trip back to his or her car. Sometimes I seem to have a knack for ending euphoria…my answer was this, “That is a dead cop!” There are a number of similar stories about vendors who don’t understand the differences between first responders and citizens. They built what they thought would be great devices but the devices would not be accepted for field use.
This brings me back to the types of devices needed, their functionality, battery life, and what to me is the most critical operational feature of any device be it an LMR handheld, smartphone, tablet, a combination device, or even two devices coupled together using Bluetooth, for example. When first responders need help, either for themselves or for a citizen with them, they need to know with certainty how to summon that help and the best method to ensure the message is heard or received by others. One device I have seen couples an LTE smart device with an LMR radio via Bluetooth. However, the user must decide which Push-To-Talk (PTT) to enable—the PTT on the LMR radio or the PTT over the LTE device. This decision process takes time and in some cases, could lead to circumstances where the emergency request is not heard. There can be no issues to be considered. When a call for help is made it needs to be made right now and without having to do anything other than push a red button or push the PTT button and talk.
What Is Available Today
If you visit firstnet.com and click on “devices” you will be shown a list of available smartphones, tablets, and in-vehicle modems. More will be coming and approved devices will have to pass a set of tests in order to be placed on the list, at least for Band 14. Remember that FirstNet now includes all of the AT&T LTE spectrum plus FirstNet’s Band 14. Many devices do not yet support Band 14 but they can be used on the FirstNet/AT&T network when equipped with the FirstNet/AT&T SIM. The site makes it clear that it is providing only a sampling of devices at this point in time. Phones include the Apple iPhone 7, Kyocera DuraForce Pro, Samsung Galaxy X6, and Sonim XP7.
The list of tablets includes commercial grade devices from Apple, LG, and Samsung, hardened units from Panasonic (FZ 02), and three rugged tablets from Xplore, the Bobcat, the Xslate B16 and R 12. This is one category I think will explode since the tablet is an obvious dual-use device. It could be mounted in a vehicle and make use of external antennas, modems, and even GPS services, and yet be easily removed and used as an incident command device when needed. It would also make an ideal tool for senior officers who want to understand how an incident is unfolding but are not involved directly in the incident.
Dual-Mode Devices and Connected Devices
A number of companies are working on combination LMR/LTE devices such as the Harris VP6000. This is a small radio, about the size of a typical LMR handheld, and it includes all of the public safety LMR spectrum bands and modes as well as LTE. Motorola’s site shows a number of devices, starting with the LEX L10 LTE hardened handheld that communicates via Bluetooth and/or WiFi with select Motorola LMR radios. Next is the LEX F10 FirstNet edition which is, according to the site, approved for FirstNet use. Motorola also offers mobile modems and encryption units. During the APCO show it was demonstrating its mobile or field pack network in a box, which is a standalone LTE network that can be deployed and set up where there is no LTE coverage or to augment existing LTE coverage. Several of these units can communicate with each other.
More to Come
Other companies are working on new devices and new methods of communicating between devices. Recently, all indications point toward a demand for devices we have not yet thought of and once again the issue will be how many different devices can be supported by the public safety population and remain less expensive than today’s LMR radios? I have not even addressed the issue of LMR going away in this week’s Advocate. That is because there are a number of issues that are not close to being solved. The most significant of which is the need for off-network communications—simplex, talk-around, peer-to-peer, one-to-one, and one-to-many. I have been told that in order to truly support PTT in confined areas during incidents, the network will have to support multicast.
There are many different ideas about devices and how they will be used. One idea put forth was that perhaps in the fire service, those inside buildings will need a full LMR radio for voice and maybe a receive-only LTE device to receive updates. However, what if they want to send out a video? How should all of this tie into the body-worn cameras and alarm systems when a weapon is drawn? Today the smartphones carried by first responders are, for the most part, their own personal devices that they also use for work. However, during incidents, they generally do not use them as they are communicating with their LMR radios. How will this change over time (or will it) and what will it mean for the public safety community and for FirstNet and AT&T?
As we move forward I am seeing a world where there are multiple, different types and combinations of devices. What people do on the ground will determine, perhaps, what type of device or devices they carry and use. It is impossible to look very far into the future to see what will be required by public safety and what might be able to be modified from a consumer product in order to keep the pricing down. Senior officers and administrative people are perhaps the easiest group since they can use a single smartphone with PTT that can be interconnected (or not) to LMR systems. Perhaps inspectors and some detectives also fit into this category, but that still leaves the bulk of the public safety community and what they will want and need.
Regardless of what is coming in terms of devices, whether you believe LMR is going away someday and FirstNet will be the only network used by public safety, reaching that point will take longer than the technologists believe it will. In the meantime, we need companies developing new and different ways to assist the public safety community to communicate. Companies that are nimble, that can follow up a project with changes and put a new version back into the field quickly, will end up winning the battle of the devices. The slow, lumbering giants will not be much interested in this market anyway because it is too small for them. I cannot wait to see those already in the market and those entering the market with new and innovative ideas and products.
My favorite movie of all times is the 1967 The President’s Analyst starring James Coburn. If you want to see the ideal communications device for all of us, there is a clip of the movie I used for one of my wireless dinners on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xZ1DPojKgZY&t=48s). Until then, companies that take the time to truly understand the needs of the public safety community, for voice, data, and video will be the ones developing products for this market. I am looking forward to seeing what is coming next!
Andrew M. Seybold
© 2017 Andrew Seybold, Inc.