Public Safety Advocate: Return of FirstNet Authority and More

Sounds like a strange title until you realize that once the contract was awarded to AT&T to build and maintain the network, those in the field deploying the FirstNet network kept up the pace while the organization’s management seemed to disappear into obscurity. However, at the FirstNet Authority board of directors’ meetings last week, the acting CEO and the board developed a plan to move forward proactively in many new and positive ways.

Ed Parkinson, acting CEO and long-time public safety supporter, has done a great job putting together this plan and the board has responded in a positive way. There have been several times when the FirstNet Authority has been slowed by circumstances not under its control. The first incidence, in late 2013, slowed progress by almost a full year. In the latest case, there was not a CEO or President to drive it forward and the board of directors was short a few members. Now we have a full board and, from what I have seen, an acting CEO with a vision of where The FirstNet Authority needs to go, how to help continue building out the network, and identifying additional pieces and parts that make sense.

Instead of The FirstNet Authority management simply watching over the contract vendor, the new plan is to include the public safety community as more of a partner in this private/public partnership. Edward Horowitz, chairman of the FirstNet board, is quoted as saying at the meeting, “As we strive to fully realize the promise of FirstNet, we are engaging with public safety to chart a path forward for the network. Using their feedback, our Roadmap will advance the network and guide our investments over the next several years and beyond.”

After the presentation to the board by the acting CEO, and with concurrence of the FirstNet executives, the board passed Resolution 98, “The FirstNet Investment Principles.” The goals of this resolution are stated this way:

  •    Be derived from and benefit public safety
  •    Maintain and advance the foundation of the network
  •    Consider a balanced approach and provide value to public safety
  •    Be fiscally responsible and reflect strong financial management

What I see here is a renewed pledge from The FirstNet Authority to not simply sit back and monitor the progress of FirstNet (Built with AT&T) but to work with public safety and the vendor to enhance the network, identify some of the missing pieces, and most importantly, listen to the public safety community using the network (and those with a wait-and-see attitude). 

In talking with people conversant with this new or renewed plan to move public safety forward, it is clear that what started out as a public/private partnership between The FirstNet Authority (an independent authority) under the auspices of the National Telecommunications and Information Association (NTIA) and AT&T, the FirstNet contract vendor, has been expanded to include public safety in this partnership making it more than simply a beneficiary. This is the way it should be since FirstNet is the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN). In terms of the 25-year contract with the vendor, its responsibility is clearly charted to build out the network, operate it, keep it up and running, and expand it as needed. In addition, the vendor has pledged that any new technology, such as the coming of 5G higher-speed communications, will also be made available to FirstNet users as part of the FirstNet (Built with AT&T) network.

FirstNet the Authority will be collecting money from the vendor for operation of the network. This money is to be used only for the purpose of furthering the FirstNet network and services. I have been assured that the federal government will not swoop in and take the funds from FirstNet, but that it is FirstNet Authority’s goal to reinvest this money to augment the network and provide additional funds for projects or expansions that are not part of the contract with the vendor but are deemed necessary or desirable for the public safety community.

 It appears that the acting CEO and his executives clearly understand the reasons The FirstNet Authority came to be, and we know from the many years AT&T has continued to help advance FirstNet from the dream it was in the beginning through the federal government process, and then on to win the FirstNet award. Indeed, AT&T has been a true partner to FirstNet. I believe given the fact that the FirstNet Authority board has authorized this future vision, that the vendor is also fully onboard with it, and that public safety will be a party to how this partnership takes shape.

While the NTIA has notices out looking for a new board member to fill an upcoming vacancy, and is also advertising for a full-time CEO, I hope the acting CEO who has driven this initiative forward stay, losing the “acting” part of his current title and driving this vision of the advancement of The FirstNet Authority.

FirstNet Devices

Changing gears here, I have been carrying a Sonim XP8 for some time now. In addition, I obtained a Motorola LEX L11, and recently had an opportunity to see and learn about the Apple iPhone XR offering built-in Band 14. Some of Samsung’s new devices are also Band 14-capable. More choices are coming and it appears that we are seeing more devices than expected. When you realize the entire public safety community numbers less than ten million, and most phone vendors are not interested in building a device unless they can ship many millions of them, the public safety community is fortunate that vendors have, in fact, listened and responded.

What I am waiting for now is more tablets, ruggedized or standard with a hardened case, that include Band 14. I still believe the public safety vehicle of the future will include land mobile radio and an onboard Mobile Data Terminal device. However, I also believe the Mobile Data Terminal of choice will be a tablet that can be easily removed (by an authorized person) and used on the scene of an incident. The larger screen is ideal for displaying more data.

I have seen demos of multiple on-scene videos available for the Incident Commander. The IC may have one full size video on the screen with icons depicting other available videos, perhaps another view of the equipment, and personnel on the scene. As important to an IC is knowing what equipment has been ordered and when it will arrive so it can be positioned where it is most needed. 

As mentioned last week, I really like the idea of a single radio in a vehicle serving both its LMR and FirstNet/LTE functions. The new single-band LMR/LTE and multiband LMR/LTE products I saw at IWCE lead me to believe there will be more such products. Recently, I referred back to a report I did for a vendor in 2015. This vendor is in the LMR business in the public safety and business and industrial markets and the report was to help determine whether it would build product for FirstNet or private label products from another vendor. 

One of my suggestions, even back then, was to add a slot (at that point I was focused on FirstNet only) and enable the radio to work with, for example, a Sierra Wireless LTE modem. Sierra Wireless and others already had cards designed to slide into a notebook and I thought that would be a good way of providing both LMR and FirstNet inside a public safety vehicle. Today we are seeing products either on the market or to be available soon that take that idea and improve upon it (better because most of what I am seeing from these LMR radios are two-LTE slot capability). 

I believe FirstNet is the network for public safety. However, I also believe a secondary network should be available in certain cases when not in FirstNet coverage. We have several public safety clients that will be implementing their vehicular systems in this manner with the expectation that as FirstNet expands, use of the secondary network will diminish.

Now that FirstNet is live and serving thousands of public safety customers, albeit a small market, I believe we will be seeing more combination devices, especially in the mobile radio area. We will see a number of different handheld options as well as the standalone FirstNet-capable devices I mentioned, through the Harris XL-200 multi-band LMR and LTE device. Motorola’s LEX L11 can be used in conjunction with a Motorola LMR radio to provide access to both devices, and I expect a few more ways to marry devices as well. The new Bluetooth capable of multiple connections for devices adds yet another dimension to the equation. It will be possible for users to switch devices to a speaker-mic or ear piece and PTT lapel mic. This will be implemented in such a way that people using both devices will be able to automatically know which is active.

There is a lot of room for innovation with the combination of LMR and FirstNet/LTE. Now that we have a large installed base of FirstNet (Built with AT&T) users, I expect more interesting choices to make their way into the market (with the stipulation they meet the FirstNet Authority’s requirement that only open standards be permitted on FirstNet). I hope it sticks to the promise of open standards and between The Authority and FirstNet, they enforce it. Open standards should be a goal for all of us to ensure the network remains open and provides what was asked for—A Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network.

Winding Down

After two weeks on the road, spending my first week in the office has enabled me to almost catch up. There remains a lot of buzz around FirstNet and what it is doing for public safety. I am glad to see what I consider to be the rebirth of The FirstNet Authority. And I am confident The FirstNet Authority, FirstNet (Built with AT&T), and the public safety community will continue to work together for the common goal of better and more interoperable communications for all of the public safety community. 

Andrew M. Seybold
©2019, Andrew Seybold, Inc. 

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