Today there are more than 4 million users on the FirstNet network representing 23K+ agencies. If your agency has not yet joined FirstNet, here are some things to think about.
In March of 2017, construction began on the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN) known as FirstNet (Built with AT&T).
At that time, AT&T voluntarily opened its broadband spectrum, complete with priority and preemption, for public safety use. While they weren’t looking at AT&T and had already built out their territory, a few agencies decided to give FirstNet a test run. It wasn’t until agencies began trying FirstNet did they realize they had been ignoring build-outs from AT&T and others; they were already using other broadband networks.
During the first year of operation, FirstNet (Built with AT&T) and the FirstNet Authority worked with every state and territory to explain the advantages to FirstNet. At the end of the year, all of the states and territories had decided not to build their own portion of the network and instead joined FirstNet. By the end of year, all 50 states and all territories had decided to join FirstNet.
To clear up some confusion, even though the states and territories have opted in to FirstNet, that does not mean any federal, state, or local agencies are required to join. The law clearly states that each agency has the right to either become part of FirstNet or continue with the systems they are currently using.
The numbers certainly tell a story about FirstNet’s success and the large number of agencies that have joined. Some agencies may have decided to stay with the broadband they were using, but those that have or will be joining FirstNet will soon have some distinct advantages over agencies that are not part of the system.
This often-asked question is being asked by both the first responder community and elected officials. My response is that joining FirstNet enables your agency not only to communicate with existing Land Mobile Radio (LMR) units but also with the ability to communicate with all other agencies using FirstNet.
In the beginning, a number of agencies held back because they thought another broadband network provided better coverage in their area. Sometimes they were right. As a result, a number of agencies took a “wait-and-see” or “prove it to me” attitude. These agencies watched FirstNet developing and growing but did not decide to join.
Today, FirstNet coverage is extremely good across the United States, and FirstNet (Built with AT&T) is working on providing access to 5G technology and coverage. FirstNet has teamed up with satellite companies and others to provide communications both where needed on a regular basis, and where there is a need for an undetermined time during a major incident.
If there is interest in moving to the only nationwide public safety broadband network (FirstNet), some due diligence needs to be done to ensure the move makes sense and adds value to the overall communications systems being run by the agency.
First, for me, would be to check with surrounding agencies and departments to see which ones are already on FirstNet. It should be noted here that it is possible to move from your existing broadband. The numbers certainly tell a story about FirstNet’s success and the large number of agencies that have joined. Some agencies may have decided to stay with the broadband they are using but those that have or will be joining FirstNet have some distinct advantages over agencies that are not part of the system.
You will find that there is a large number of local, regional, statewide, and federal agencies. As you identify FirstNet users, you might ask them if they are using Push-To-Talk (PTT) over FirstNet and if so, which vendor and if they happy with the vendor. Finally, has the vendor integrated the FirstNet PTT application they are using with their LMR system. The answers to these two questions can help determine if it is time to move to FirstNet. Push-to-talk between agencies has been included because I feel it is of vital importance.
You can try FirstNet with only a few users and remain in contact with them even if they are using a different broadband network. A limited number of companies provide “over-the-top push-to-talk.” No matter what network you are on, you can access groups no matter what network they are on when you are using over-the-top PTT. This is a great way to transition users from their existing broadband provider to FirstNet, especially because it does not require much downtime. Obviously, public safety downtime needs to be kept at a minimum.
From working with your local LMR system, you know how well it covers and if there are any holes, or areas that are not always easily covered. No one can tell you that within year, they will provide the same coverage as FirstNet when the network is up and running with public safety Band 14, which, during congested times, is reserved for public safety use only, in as much of the nation as is possible.
A number of agencies have been told by other broadband vendors that their coverage is better than FirstNet’s coverage. I will be the first to admit that this was true at the beginning, but FirstNet has come a very long way and FirstNet’s coverage in areas I have tested is better than other networks’ coverage.
How do you determine which broadband network will cover your area and is usable for a large portion of the area? Vendors will tell you theirs is best. The real way to determine coverage is to see test results. There are many ways to test and some testing methods are better than others. The first is to obtain some FirstNet handheld devices and distribute them to some of your personnel. If it was my decision I would distribute them to some executives, line officers, old-timers who had been at the agency for a while, and a few recruits. This method will give you a general idea of the coverage, but it will not provide map displays of actual drive test coverage. When I talk to groups about running such tests, I strongly suggest that the test pool be made up mostly of EMS personnel, for the simple reason that they are usually on more calls and reach different places more often than other types of emergency vehicles.
Some vendors have equipped vehicles with the appropriate devices to measure several networks at the same time and store the data in the cloud so it can be reviewed later.
The ideal situation for vehicle testing is to obtain a router made by Sierra Wireless, Cradlepoint, and a few others. Make sure each router can support at least two separate networks simultaneously, then add a mega range (high-power) Band 14 device that would also be connected the router.
When I ran these tests, I preferred to have an LMR device in the vehicle to compare coverage between FirstNet and the local LMR system.
The caveat here is that drive testing will show you what the coverage is on a given date and time but it will not provide data that shows different times of the days and weeks unless you drive the test routes multiple times. Of the several thousand miles I drove for drive testing, the results that were mapped and provided to the agency were pretty accurate, unless a cell site was out of service or not working properly.
Armed with data, talking with other agencies that use PTT applications you are considering, learning about their choice of PTT vendors, integration with their LMR systems, testing with handhelds, and then, finally, if needed or desired, finding an entity that can provide drive testing of your area. Additional caveats are that you will not be able to drive test gated communities unless you are given access. In urban areas, you should test coverage in underground parking garages, but with little expectation that there will be coverage from FirstNet or your LMR devices unless the LMR device is set to simplex operation.
As you work toward making a decision, you should look at the FirstNet.com website, sponsored by the AT&T FirstNet site, and review all of the different devices that are available including Apple and Android handhelds and tablets. There are also body-worn cameras, vehicular routers, high-power devices designed specifically for Band 14 where use of higher power is permitted, and other devices that have been certified for use on FirstNet.
If, for whatever reason, you have not moved to the FirstNet nationwide broadband network, I believe it is time to do so. You and your agency should once again review the advantages of becoming a FirstNet member and being able to communicate with any agency or department that is using FirstNet. No one expects every public safety agency to become a FirstNet user, but more agencies are signing up all the time. There are also surges during and immediately after major incidents when both the agencies and citizens find that the combination of FirstNet (Built with AT&T) and commercial AT&T provide not only the best day-to-day coverage, but also the best response during major incidents to restore service and provide deployables.
Every week and every month it seems there is an increase in the number of major incidents. During the past couple of weeks there has been bad weather almost everywhere with especially heavy rain in California, which desperately needs rain. However, much of the rain fell on the west side of the mountains where previous fires scarred the land and much of the rain ended up running into the ocean. One of my friends in Southern California told me the reservoir in Santa Barbara that had been basically empty for the past few years is now at least 80-percent full with more rain coming. Sometimes we have to take the bad with the good and, hopefully with federal assistance, California will be able to cover the cost of making things better for those who lost homes, vehicles and, unfortunately, some of their loved ones.
Public safety does its best to prepare for incidents by staging vehicles and moving personnel around depending on who will be available to drive into affected areas and help where needed.
During these incidents, or “disasters” if you prefer, many agencies have added redundancy to their existing LMR systems by joining FirstNet. With FirstNet, they can also send and receive text, video, images, and more that will provide information to help determine what is needed in what location.
Neither land mobile radios nor broadband radios are five nines reliable for a number of reasons including influences that do not directly affect a radio site. Those charged with keeping the networks performing to the absolute best, in addition to spreading FirstNet to cover the nation, AT&T also brought large number of deployables and the number is growing all the time. No one can solve all of the communications problems that might arise from a major incident. So far, the troops on the ground have done a wonderful job of keeping almost every piece of equipment up and running.
Communications are vitally important. There may be occasional misunderstandings in the field about whose responsibility it is to restore communications when something is down, but these responsibilities are usually well-defined. With these guidelines, two or more groups at an incident are able to work together to both bring the incident to a conclusion and keep communications up and running.
Until next week…
Andrew M. Seybold, Sr.
©2023, Andrew Seybold, Inc.