I trust you and yours had a great holiday season! As we move on to 2022, hopes are that Covid will finally be under control and we will watch our economy roar back to life. Now it is time for making New Year’s Resolutions with the best of intentions (but most of us won’t keep them very long).
I am hopeful we can start this year on a positive note for public-safety communications and that we will continue enhancing technologies, devices, and applications the public-safety community uses on FirstNet. Let’s all sign on to the resolutions outlined below and see how many we can keep through 2022.
FirstNet’s Fifth Year
In March 2017, after several bumps in the road were smoothed out and a law suit was out of the way, the FirstNet Authority issued a 25-year contract to AT&T to build, operate, and enhance what was to become the only nationwide broadband network exclusively for public safety—the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN).
The first five years of the contract were the “build-out” years and the next twenty are for continued network upgrades and expansions. The contract awarded to AT&T listed a series of milestones that had to be reached during the first five years. Failure to meet any of these result in penalties being levied on the contractor, but for each milestone reached, the contractor receives a portion of the $6.5 Billion FirstNet will receive after a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) auction for other spectrum.
As most of you know, AT&T has been consistently ahead of the five-year buildout deadlines and, as far as I know, AT&T has received all payments due as it has completed each milestone.
As a result of AT&T’s commitment to public safety and the FirstNet Authority, we are still ahead of schedule. However, while the contract was designed to build the network based on open standards, there does not appear to be a company or organization responsible for interoperable content on the network once it is built.
Of course, AT&T has assisted by establishing a FirstNet application store. AT&T has also been very successful at convincing handset and tablet vendors to include Band 14 in their devices and earning approval for their use on the FirstNet network. While we are very close to having a true nationwide public safety broadband network, we have not been able to develop ways for the large number agencies using FirstNet (Built with AT&T) to use the network for voice, data, and video interoperability. We are still lacking a number of capabilities that need to be in place before we can sit back (for a few days) and be satisfied in the knowledge that we have a nationwide public-safety broadband network and every FirstNet member agency is able to share PTT and all types of data including video, with any other agency.
The Good News
Below are my current observations and ideas for what we need to work toward in 2022.
- The FirstNet network has been built out by AT&T essentially to where it was expected to be five years into the contract.
- AT&T has also made its 5G spectrum assets available to our FirstNet first responders.
- AT&T has encouraged a number of software developers to create applications designed to streamline how data is collected and used.
- AT&T and the FirstNet Authority have worked with a number of equipment vendors to ensure there are plenty of Android-based and iOS-based devices both available and certified for use on FirstNet.
- We are able to link FirstNet Push-To-Talk (FirstNet PTT) with Land Mobile Radio Push-To-Talk (LMR PTT) services. Depending on the PTT provider, this could be as simple as Radio over IP (RoIP) connections using a donor radio. Another way is to provide interoperability including Internetworking Function (IWF) ISSI interfaces for P25 Trunked communications, Console System Interface (CSI), and other methods of providing interoperability.
- So far, AT&T has fielded more than 100 deployable cell sites in various configurations. Rescue 42 is selling smaller low-power cell sites that can be towed by a vehicle, deployed quickly, and are affordable for many agencies.
- A&T provides a help desk for agencies that may need assistance.
- Both AT&T and the FirstNet Authority have many “feet on the street” to work with public-safety agencies. Many of these people have served in various first-responder and leadership roles.
- Some agencies have upgraded their 9-1-1 systems to Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG911) and another larger group of Emergency Communications Centers (ECCs) are capable of receiving text messages as well as voice calls.
- The FirstNet Authority and FirstNet (Built with AT&T) is perhaps the largest public/private partnership entered into by the US Government. So far, other than seed money allocated to jumpstart FirstNet, and proceeds from FCC auction revenues, FirstNet has been self-funding. The Authority has put funds in excess of what it needs for daily operations back into the network.
I may have missed some important items that have been completed, but even with some omissions, this is an impressive list of accomplishments in the first five years.
Now it is time to see what still needs to be accomplished:
- We need funding for NG911. Most of the needed funds were removed from the Build Back Better legislation. The original request was for $15 Billion and many people continue to work on convincing Congress to pass a provision for this or some other funding. As I have been saying, NG911 is the feeder network for FirstNet. With NG911, callers can use voice, text, photos, and videos to provide ECCs with more information than if they call 9-1-1 using voice. The ECC’s can then vet the incoming information and send it up to those responding to the incident in order to better understand what they are heading into.
- The FCC has not yet determined how the 4.9-GHz band will be used. My belief is it will permit public safety to be granted a single, nationwide license for the band, which will allow adding nationwide 5G technology, protect existing public-safety users, and enable secondary users to share the band under the same conditions as they have on the 700-MHz Band 14 spectrum that is licensed to the FirstNet Authority.
- This year will see more deployables, both owned and operated by FirstNet (Built with AT&T), and some agencies that are purchasing towable small cell sites, cell sites in a suitcase (CAS), and a host of more efficient and capable Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs or Drones).
- More interoperability between and among Computer-Aided Dispatch applications (CAD) will enable ECC’s maps and other data to be shared with neighboring ECCs and, as NG911 becomes more prevalent, enable ECCs to hand off their incoming calls and dispatches to another ECC if theirs is down for any reason.
- More agencies are taking advantage of High-Power or MegaRange ™ equipment for use on Band 14, and there will probably be more and different types of high-power devices that are not limited to vehicle-mount systems.
- More and new types of devices, perhaps even new ways to combine FirstNet and LMR radios into the same device, or more ways for a FirstNet device and LMR device to be interconnected to voice sharing.
- The latest version of the 3GPP standards for 5G include the ability to build a 5G device that can be used in a vehicle or elsewhere to provide basic repeater functions to extend 5G coverage where needed.
- This could be the year for public safety, working with the vendors and the Safer Buildings Coalition (SBC) for a nationwide plan, to provide common types of inbuilding public-safety communications devices and systems.
These are big goals; some can be realized this year while others can be moved farther down the field toward different agencies’ specific goals.
The coming year should be productive for public safety and critical communications. However, there could be some setbacks. The FCC’s decision to allow unlicensed devices to exist or co-exist underneath the multitude of critical-communications microwave systems in the 6-GHz band could cause many complications.
Unfortunately, this FCC plan can be implemented now that the courts have decided interference—which I am sure they know nothing about—will not be an issue for existing microwave users. Yet we have conclusive tests showing that even inbuilding WiFi 6 devices can cause interference to existing microwave systems. When interference occurs among licensed and unlicensed devices, there is no practical way to determine which of the millions of unlicensed devices riding under the microwave systems is causing the interference. Even if the offending device is identified, only the FCC has the authority to shut it down.
Regrettably, a few years ago the FCC reduced the number of field engineers and offices. Field personnel used to be responsible for addressing issues such as interference. However, from what I can gather, their numbers have been reduced to the point where it is almost impossible for a field engineer to be assigned to help resolve any type of interference issue.
I am still advocating for the current FCC Commissioners to bring back volunteer groups of public-safety and/or critical-communications personnel to serve on an advisory panel to work with the FCC. They would resume previous activities such as vetting any changes in spectrum allocations that have or will have a direct impact on public-safety and/or critical-infrastructure systems. It is clear that the FCC Commissioners are under constant pressure from a variety of wireless groups with different needs. Commissioners must figure out how to satisfy as many of these groups as possible, including vendors, and they must make sure interference from other users or due to the “RF Noise Floor” in a given portion of the spectrum does not cause degradation of existing spectrum. Even though technologists keep developing efficient ways to use the spectrum and continue to “find” additional spectrum such as the millimeter wave spectrum that is to be used for 5G, spectrum is still a finite resource and we must make sure it continues to be as usable as it has been for us.
Next Week Part 2, What Remains to be Done.
Andrew M. Seybold
©2002, Andrew Seybold, Inc.