During the first full year of network availability, FirstNet has demonstrated how it increases first responders’ effectiveness in handling most disasters including wildfires, tornadoes, flooding, and hurricanes on the East coast. In fact, its debut in Alaska was greeted by an earthquake. Those using the network, considering joining FirstNet, and its proponents have seen time and again how the network has held up under adverse conditions. In cases when it did incur problems, they saw how quickly FirstNet (Built with AT&T) responded to provide temporary coverage and then to restore the network.
In the majority of cases, FirstNet met or exceeded expectations. Early on, some departments complained FirstNet did not come to their aid. However, for the most part, these departments had not yet joined FirstNet. Conversely, in some cases departments were taken care of regardless of their current standing. We have also seen FirstNet equip federal and state agencies with devices during many of the disasters thus enabling those arriving at an incident to better coordinate activities and initiate more actions more quickly.
Meanwhile in Alaska
According to Anchorage Daily news, Anchorage Police Chief Justin Doll and other commanders had signed on to test the FirstNet network with their personal cell phones only days before the 7.1-magnitude earthquake struck. During the emergency operations, Chief Doll observed that only officials with FirstNet were able to communicate without problems. Other reports say the existing Land Mobile Radio (LMR) system was “spotty” after the earthquake but FirstNet performed well.
And in the Seattle Area
It appears press folks who cover public safety stories are feeling cut out of the loop since FirstNet came along. FirstNet is a secure and private network and information sent and received over this network is intended for public safety only. What is being transmitted should not be made available to the press until a Public Information Officer (PIO) is ready to release it. Since members of the press have been in the habit of listening in on public safety calls and cannot do so with FirstNet, they are unable to follow what is happening and are feeling left out. Both FirstNet the Authority and FirstNet (Built with AT&T) have said that sharing information on a local level is up to the department. However, I believe it would not be advisable to provide the press with access to FirstNet. Information that may impinge on individual rights, medical information, and more is routinely transmitted over the network and such information belongs on a private network.
On an almost-weekly basis we see press releases about FirstNet (Built with AT&T) and/or AT&T expanding their networks. This week it is Phoenix’ turn with AT&T announcing it will be investing $375 million to help expand FirstNet and, therefore, its commercial network as well. Having performed extensive drive testing in the Phoenix area, I can attest to the fact that the network is growing more robust almost daily. You can easily see the new cell sites, many of which are sort of “stealth” sites that are bad impressions of palm trees sprouting up in the area. In the City of Scottsdale, I even passed by a rather large cactus I later determined was a cell site.
Meanwhile, in my area north of the city, fiber is being laid in along all major and many secondary roads. It is not clear whether this is the precursor to 5G or if our cable TV or landline phone company is running the fiber. In any event, the amount of fiber being put in the ground is amazing and I cannot wait to see what develops.
Some of you may have seen the notice on Linkedin.com about Texas voting to elevate its Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) personnel and dispatchers to first responder status. This was a great move that I hope will be replicated in many more states until members of Congress finally “get it.” As several wrote on Linkedin.com: these people are our FirstNet of defense; they are here for us from the beginning to the end; they are a lifeline and, in many cases, save lives on their own while public safety is still responding. Congratulations to Texas. Which state will stand up next to be counted in this important elevation of those who work tirelessly to see that public safety receives calls and stays safe?
The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) has formed an alliance to educate fire fighters and paramedics on the 21stcentury tools available to provide critical data and inter-agency communications through FirstNet. This endeavor by the IAFF and FirstNet along with others is making the difference between merely a new network used for Push-To-Talk (PTT) and interoperability with a new network that provides floor plans, hazmat information, and video, and enables paramedics to transmit more data back to hospitals. For example, ultrasound from the field can help detect internal bleeding that may not otherwise be discovered until the patient is in the emergency room.
AT&T’s first priority was to build an operational FirstNet network. Now it is up to the various agencies to make sure their responders are conversant with the network and all its capabilities. It certainly works well as an interoperability platform for push-to-talk and integrated LMR-to-FirstNet PTT, but it is capable of so much more. Unfortunately, not all FirstNet users have been trained on the data and video aspects of the network nor in many instances have dispatch and PSAP personnel been schooled in what data to send when and how to assure it has been properly vetted.
As I understand it, FirstNet the Authority has stated many times that only open-standard applications will be permitted on the FirstNet network. Yet I am hearing a new push-to-talk vendor will be certified to operate its Mission Critical Push-to-Talk system over FirstNet even though it has embedded a code into its chipset in order for it to work. As far as I can tell from the definition, this is a proprietary application. While this may be the best solution for now, it may not be as push-to-talk applications continue to evolve. In any event, I find it interesting that this proprietary push-to-talk system would even be considered for use over the FirstNet network.
A number of push-to-talk companies have or will soon offer more open-standard solutions so all PTT applications that run over FirstNet will be able to communicate with all other PTT applications on the network. Without this interoperability, FirstNet will simply serve as a common platform, falling short of the goal to provide a nationwide broadband network that is available to all public safety agencies and to provide true and functioning interoperability capabilities, especially for push-to-talk, FirstNet’s most-used feature.
I have been pushing for interoperability between LMR and FirstNet for some time. Currently, several approved vendors are interfacing LMR and LTE using ISSI for P25 trunked systems and other means including Radio over IP (RoIP) for other modes of LMR communications. I always assumed when the Mission Critical Push-To-Talk (MCPTT) “standard” is finally a standard and most PTT vendors offer some version of MCPTT, all versions will be required to interconnect and inter-operate with each other. If not, I do not believe FirstNet will be fulfilling its promise to resolve the department-to-department interoperability issues public safety has faced for more than thirty years with their digital land mobile radio systems and differing slices of spectrum.
I am hearing from public safety communications professionals that FirstNet is determined to do away with land mobile radio altogether leaving only FirstNet standing. I have to push back on this notion since I believe the folks at AT&T who tell us LMR will remain an important part of the public safety communications landscape for many years to come. As it competes for customers and none of the other operators has stepped up to match AT&T’s investment in FirstNet, AT&T’s support for LMR sets it apart. I believe the folks inside AT&T who are responsible for FirstNet are realists when it comes to public safety’s need for off-network direct-mode communications and its acknowledgment that LMR still has a better footprint than FirstNet in many areas.
My vision of future public safety communications includes nationwide Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG911), land mobile radio, and FirstNet on both LTE and 5G. As previously stated, I expect all these communications platforms to be integrated using a common IP back-end. So far, companies such as Kenwood’s EF Johnson have designed and built IP-based P25 trunked and simulcast systems around the United States and other LMR vendors offer or are developing IP back-end systems.
In the worn-out comparison marketing uses of a three-legged stool with one leg being FirstNet, another land mobile radio, and the third NG911, the stool seat forms a common platform to hold all the legs in place. This common platform needs to be IP-based and used for all forms of public safety communications including the three above along with WiFi and 4.9-GHz systems when properly encrypted and made private. The Internet itself should never be used for any of this connectivity. As with FirstNet today, the back-end should be separate and apart from commercial back-end systems.
Perhaps public safety can use a common network in the future, but even then, I worry about bad guys taking the network down in a given area so they can perpetrate some dastardly deed without having to worry about public safety personnel being able to communicate with each other.
Years ago, when PTT on FirstNet was first considered, I suggested that FirstNet should purchase the guard bands. “Guard bands” are slices of spectrum between FirstNet and other networks and they were for sale for only a few million dollars at the time. The thought was to keep PTT on the guard bands and use FirstNet primarily for data and video. These guard bands would have worked really well for a public safety Internet of Things (IoT) and PTT. However, this did not happen and I don’t see it happening now. Now we must fight to keep every last morsel of public safety spectrum from turning into a new revenue source for Washington, DC, even if public safety needs the spectrum to function.
I will continue to believe in the three-network public safety communications platform. It works, it is already in place, and we can continue to incorporate the best of all worlds into what appears to the back-end as a series of networks that work together parsing out data, video, and voice where needed, for as long as needed.
Andrew M. Seybold
©2019, Andrew Seybold, Inc.