Sometimes it can be a real challenge to come up with a subject I think would be of interest to my readers. This week seems particularly difficult. FirstNet is humming along ahead of its required build-out for Band 14 while Verizon continues to run expensive commercials in an effort to prove to public safety that it is the best network. We all remember how Verizon throttled fire personnel and equipment during wildland fires in California but it continues its attempts to divide the public safety community between it and FirstNet. Even so, FirstNet growth in terms of new agencies added in only the last three months, it is clear that most departments understand FirstNet is the “Interoperable Public Safety Network” dedicated to first responders while other commercial carriers are simply that: commercial broadband carriers.
The FirstNet network was not thrust upon the public safety community by network operators though some were certainly supportive of the process. Rather, it was the public safety community itself that came together to walk the Halls of Congress, battle with those in the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) who did not believe public safety needed the additional spectrum known as the D Block, fight off both T-Mobile and Sprint, which at one point went as far as to put up a website to try to convince others that the spectrum should be auctioned as open to commercial networks. The public safety community, with assistance from then Vice President Joe Biden who was/is a staunch believer in public safety, fought for FirstNet from day one and it became THE public safety network.
This is not to say there are no detractors today, some of which have not become part of FirstNet and may not for a while. Several departments have balked at FirstNet (Built with AT&T) having a monthly data limit specified in its contract even though FirstNet has stated publicly that it will never throttle a public safety agency. It appears corporate AT&T requires the limit but FirstNet understands that under no circumstance can public safety be throttled, especially during an incident. This is one area that needs to be clarified so it does not keep more agencies from joining.
However, there is a difference in not throttling during an incident and agencies using FirstNet for always-on HD video camera surveillance. This is also an area where there has been no definitive statement as far as I know. This particular issue is complex since the FCC is still tinkering around with what it wants to do with the 4.9-GHz spectrum, 50 MHz of which is allocated to public safety. If the FCC would leave it alone, a number of these cameras could be moved to 4.9 GHz and there would not be an issue.
As it is, the issue of fixed-camera HD video over FirstNet presents an interesting quandary. On the one hand, cellular systems were never designed to provide for stationary systems that don’t move from one cell to another. The math used to determine capacity of a cell site is based on movement into and out of the site while today we have a lot of people streaming video on commercial networks. Many of these streamers are stationary but once the streaming is done, they are off the network until the next time. HD cameras are up and running 24X7 in most cases and HD video uses 5 Gbps of data.
Perhaps a single camera in a single cell sector would not be too bad but many departments have multiple cameras in close proximity. Setting up video systems for events of short duration is one thing but being up all the time is another. I don’t know the best solutions for this issue. I do know from a friend in the business that various departments have had their video over commercial networks throttled so they want to switch to FirstNet. However, we don’t have a definitive answer to whether or not fixed video will be permitted. Meanwhile, some agencies are impatiently waiting for an answer to this question.
In some cases, 5G is different. In the lower bands, 5G won’t have enough bandwidth to serve the 5G cell-to-home fixed-video business. Today the upper 5G bands are being used and the vision is that 5G to the home and business could, over time, replace cable, phone lines, and perhaps even fiber to the home. If 5G data speeds are as good as the industry is predicting, this will certainly open up new frontiers for fixed wireless delivery of video, Internet, phone service, and more. When 5G is used to communicate to and from mobile devices, speeds may be a little slower but still much better than with today’s Long-Term Evolution (LTE), which is not doing a bad job of delivering broadband services commercially, to citizens, and now with FirstNet, to public safety agencies.
FirstNet is making a lot of positive progress. Data services have been slower to materialize than we all expected, but again, I believe once Next-Generation 9-1-1 (NG911) is deployed everywhere or even as it is being deployed, the use of still pictures and videos will hopefully increase. There are already places where you can text 9-1-1 and include a picture. For example, if someone witnesses a hit-and-run incident, takes a picture of the car’s license plate and sends it to a Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP), this picture can be sent out to those responding as well as other units. The chances of a responding police car driving past the fleeing subject going the other way could be reduced. Armed with the license plate number, the officer might recognize the car and turn around to stop the vehicle. Stopping the suspect at the time of the incident is much preferable to a lengthy investigation later.
While brainstorming about what might convince those in Congress to vote for this network, we discussed helpful information that could be sent to the field. Missing persons and Amber alerts could be distributed to more people in the field. Field personnel could benefit from receiving building plans, hazmat location detail, or electrical system details so during a hostage situation perhaps the power could be cut. We envisioned medics in remote areas being able to use ultrasound devices as well as vital signs to determine if a person is bleeding internally. All this would help them decide whether they need a helicopter or an ambulance for transport.
Some departments are using some of these ideas and others that didn’t even occur to us. What we need now is for more departments to discover that FirstNet is not only about interoperable Push-To-Talk (PTT), it is about data, video, and still pictures. Nor is it about replacing Land Mobile Radio (LMR) for voice services although it is providing a great platform for PTT interoperability. Rather, FirstNet was conceived of and developed to add functionality to public safety communications that had only been available on commercial networks when they were not congested.
I realize we are still in the early stages of FirstNet, after all, the contract is only in the twenty-fourth month. AT&T has done well on the network side of things, building new sites, adding Band 14, and filling in coverage with small sites where needed. However, the uses we and others envisioned for the network have not yet been fully realized. Everything takes time and applications are not created overnight. Even so, I hope by the end of 2019 we will see a lot more data and video crossing FirstNet in both directions.
It’s still surprising that so many first responders are not aware of FirstNet even if their agency or other agencies within the same jurisdiction have joined FirstNet. The other day I was at the supermarket and so were members of Engine Company 37 from the City of Phoenix. As I always do, I started talking to them about their communications. When I asked if they were using FirstNet for data, they responded “no.” They did not know what FirstNet was and besides, the Fire Department just spent a lot of money on its new 700/800-MHz P25 trunked radios, so they did not believe they would be interested. I mentioned data and video but it is not easy to convey what FirstNet is all about in a quick conversation. The Phoenix PD does have FirstNet devices in service so I would have thought the fire service would at least be aware of FirstNet.
FirstNet information is all over Twitter but it is not being sent to local news media. I think either the FirstNet Authority or FirstNet network needs to devise a plan to more widely publicize FirstNet. One goal would be to raise awareness of FirstNet’s existence and the second would be to raise awareness that while FirstNet is in place, NG911 deployment is struggling and needs a financial boost.
I cannot imagine what those who had to work in the sub-zero temperatures went through. The pictures depict fire fighters covered in ice, water quickly turning to ice, and the wind-chill factor driving temperatures lower still. Fire, EMS, and police were all out in this weather. They were there to do their jobs and they performed to the very best of their ability in what I would consider almost unbearable conditions. Having been a volunteer fire fighter in both the Philadelphia area and then in the Cincinnati area, I spent many nights with temperatures below freezing but never in the temperatures these folks endured. This is yet another indication of their devotion to their jobs and to helping other people, which is always what it is about. We owe these men and woman a lot for what they went through.
As we progress further into the year, I know FirstNet will stay ahead of schedule and new agencies will join. The purpose of FirstNet was and still is to provide a nationwide interoperable public safety broadband network to deliver data, video, and now voice so units from anywhere in the country can respond to incidents in any other areas and know their radios (at least their FirstNet radios) will work! As the network moves along, we need to make certain it is used to augment communications first responders already have and to make their jobs easier and safer.
Andrew M. Seybold
©2019, Andrew Seybold, Inc.