Public Safety Advocate: Storms, Future Communications, FirstNet Gains

The only way to start this week’s Advocate is to thank all first responders, volunteers, and the many others who struggled to save lives in mid-America in the aftermath of tornados. In the evening of December 10, the longest track tornado on record traveled at least 275 miles. The many tornados in the Midwest that night took many lives, left many people injured, many were left homeless, and an unimaginable amount of property was destroyed.

Storm Conditions

It is times like this that our first responders more than earn the respect of the rest of us. Many risk their lives to help others while many provide critical support. If there is any good news as the Midwest digs out from these horrific storms, it is that FirstNet is proving its value and its fleet of deployables are either on the scene or on their way.

Many years ago, the public-safety community set out to develop a network such as FirstNet that is by and for public safety. While a network is never “finished,’ today’s FirstNet definitely enables our first-responder community to communicate and coordinate its missions. Meanwhile, FirstNet’s deployables and other portable devices play a significant role in first-responders’ ability to provide remote communications and more deployables are on the way.

During disasters such as this, all forms of public-safety communications are needed and, hopefully, are put back in service quickly when they fail. As important as FirstNet is in handling the massive tasks facing our first responders and the many volunteers, Land Mobile Radio (LMR) systems that service the communities are still vitally important. LMR provides redundancy and it is currently the only system capable of direct unit-to-unit communications that are vital to all who are involved in an incident.

After reading the latest Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) daily reports, it is clear that even if every FirstNet deployable is sent to the Midwest, all FirstNet cell sites are brought back online quickly, and LMR systems remain operational, major disasters across several states will still cause a tremendous loss of life and $Billions in property damage. As FEMA executives noted in a recent release, “this is the new normal.” If this is indeed the new normal, public-safety and critical-communications communities need to recognize what is happening and perhaps modify how they approach public-safety communications.

Obviously, deployment of the Public Safety Nationwide Broadband Network (NPSBN) (FirstNet) has been the glue that has held public-safety communications together. However, when faced with emergencies of a similar magnitude, we may need to redouble our efforts. We will need to provide FULL interoperability for first responders using FirstNet and better, less-expensive connectivity options for FirstNet/LTE PTT interoperability. This includes nationwide, fully-interoperable push-to-talk, applications, and Computer-Aided Design (CAD) data that can be shared among agencies that are using a wide variety of applications and CAD systems. 

I wrote about one solution for fully-compatible data across FirstNet. However, I have not had time to provide a synopsis of the report entitled, “Approach for Developing an Interoperable Information Sharing Framework,” published by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA). I have been working on other more urgent issues. One is a major push for the FCC to return 4.9-GHz spectrum to public safety. Another is keeping an eye on the 6-GHz microwave band that is used primarily for point-to-point critical-communications microwave systems. I believe what is described in the report is a viable way to deliver common data sets to users who need the data in both in the field and Emergency Operations Centers (EOCs). Anyone interested can find the final version of the report here

New Normal

If this really is the new normal for nature-related events, our priorities will need to be adjusted to provide more redundancy and resiliency to support public-safety personnel answering the call in the United States, Tribal Lands, or U.S. Territories. 

We have already started moving in this direction. The National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) Report on public-safety grade provides a roadmap for bringing more of our communications systems up to public-safety standards. NPSTC has also put a lot of effort into providing statewide and nationwide interoperable mobile radio channels with common names that are able to use P25 trunked systems. Many public-safety radio sites have been hardened, many have better back-up batteries and generators on location, and LMR provides graceful degradation. If sites fail in an area, the final fallback for LMR is off-network one-to-one and one-to-many communications.

While it has been busy with the first five-year network build-out as mandated by the FirstNet Authority, FirstNet (Built with AT&T) continues to add cell sites, batteries, and generators to the network and more deployables are being made available to FirstNet users. 

Sometimes nature gives warnings of coming events such as floods, severe snow, and high winds. In those cases, FirstNet and other broadband networks, power companies, and others can position personnel and equipment closer to the predicted disaster so they can quickly restore communications and power. 

As we saw on December 10, nature does not always provide enough warning for staging personnel and equipment. However, those in a twister’s likely path usually have just enough time to seek shelter. So when those in the candle factory headed for the safest place in the building, the storm was so severe the entire building was reduced to pile of rubble with scores of workers trapped beneath it. 

Plenty, adequate, little, or no warning, communications systems need to be up and running, temporary systems need to be brought in, and everything that has been mentioned above.

What Can be Done Now

For the most part, we are moving in the right direction to strengthen our communications systems. However, as I said above, more needs to be done as soon as possible. 

There are a few ways to hasten meeting our goal of better and more resilient communications for our first responders. The first is to make sure all radio systems already in place are as hardened as they can be. Another is to maintain stores of equipment that can be handed out to personnel arriving to assist. For years, The Fire Service kept caches of radios to send to areas that needed additional equipment during an emergency. Many agencies have taken to keeping some of their older radios for a cache of their own. Time and time again, FirstNet has provided smartphones and other devices to those on the ground who need to be in contact with others. 

Unfortunately, many of these caches are not properly maintained. The radios are not dusted off and tested on a regular basis, batteries are not recharged and, in most cases, those who maintain a cache of radios have not thought ahead and purchased battery cases to be filled with disposable batteries that will keep equipment running during an emergency. 

Conversely, generators and back-up battery systems tend to be exercised frequently. Even so, something unexpected can cause a problem. For example, during the Houston flooding a few years ago, generators that failed did so primarily because they burned all the oil they needed to run. In many areas, generators that were in basements have been moved to higher ground to prevent them from being flooded. In addition to better maintenance, new types of standby power are being deployed or are about to become available.

Future Public-Safety Communications 

When I look toward the future of public-safety communications, I keep coming back to the fact that we need multiple ways to keep our networks up and running. To maintain service for as many of their customers as possible, power grids and wired telephone systems can route (re-route) power and phone calls using a variety of techniques. However, power and telco lines come down and must be repaired. 

Perhaps we should be looking into alternate ways to route public-safety and other communications systems. No, I’m not going to say we should use the Internet, even though the Internet is a good example of being able to route and re-route traffic. Even so, the Internet was never designed to carry mission-critical information; it is a “best effort” network. 

We have deployables with satellite backhaul, carry portable devices, and are seeing a whole new wave of very capable UAVs. On the other hand, we still have disparate networks with no easy way to bridge them.

There are also a number of network-centric improvements that are available but implementation has been slow. 

The Vision

In the future, I hope to see a common, redundant set of back-end services that will be available to a multiplicity of networks. In this regard, I often talk about Internet Protocol (IP) back-ends and how they can be deployed to carry different types of voice, data, and video between many different types of networks. 

When we finally have Next-Generation 9-1-1 (NG911) funding on a nationwide basis (I believe we will), and as we convert more LMR networks to IP back-ends, we will be able to provide more redundancy. Since FirstNet is already fully IP-based, there is no reason we can’t have more than one IP back-end per network. As we progress, all these networks will be able to use IP for backhaul. Then we can explore how to connect sites and devices to this common backhaul, and how to implement IP backhaul to add redundancy to how information is conveyed to and from sites and from users. 

Several networks have some form of back-up backhaul today and some systems are implementing IP backhaul to some extent. For example, some networks are using FirstNet devices in ECCs. If they lose their fiber feed, the system can switch to FirstNet. It is rare, but others have added satellite backhaul to their IP-based systems at key sites and ECCs to keep as much of the network as possible in service. 

Since FirstNet deployables can be connected via fiber or satellite, I believe after it has matured, 5G will be used for backhaul in some cases. 

Allocating $65 Billion

There are costs involved to be sure. It isn’t cheap to build in redundancy, but it can be done over time and with network sharing and pre-planning. 

Finally, after all these years, we have $65 Billion allocated to close the digital divide. Think about what could be accomplished if those who are to receive the funds take the time to look at how little more it would cost to implement one or more backhaul redundancies. 

Many of our networks already have a lot of redundancy built in. For example, the core (brain) of the FirstNet network is not housed in a single building. Instead, there are multiple cores spread out over the United States that talk to each other and are connected by multiple, redundant IP back-ends. We should be able to use this model to cross-connect all public-safety networks that include redundant routers to and from them.

After doing all this, will public-safety communications systems become a true 5-9’s (99.999% reliable) network across the entire United States? Of course, the answer “no,” it is not that simple. There will always be some single points of failure to correct as they are found and even then, nature or humans will still be able to damage these networks. Even so, we will have accomplished a great deal if we can keep the networks up longer, bring them back up more easily using different backhaul paths, or identify different ways to move data to and from radio systems.

I would like to see those responsible for allocating the $65 Billion in rural funding come together to identify ways to enhance our critical-communications systems and infrastructure. These groups include the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the Department of Agriculture, other federal organizations, private partners, fiber companies, tower companies, Internet Service Providers (ISPs), network providers, and satellite providers including the next generation of lite Low Earth Orbit satellites (LEOs). 

The push-back will be that it won’t be possible to bring all the players together and come up with a better way to provide communications. A similar process has been successful with other technologies so why not public-safety and critical-communications systems?

Think about what has been going on this week. Many responders are in the field. Some are coordinating field units and some are soliciting other agencies for aid. First responders have come to assist regardless of where they were. If incoming units could be briefed while on their way, view video of what they are heading into, and be given their assignments as they arrive, they could report directly to where they are needed and know what they need to do. At the same time, they could communicate with their own dispatch centers and ECCs and provide real-time updates. Some of this is here today, but not all.

The first five years of the FirstNet build-out is nearing completion and there are twenty more years left on the contract. How will the FirstNet Authority and FirstNet (Built with AT&T) prepare for what is coming in the way of technology or anticipate large-scale disasters coming our way? Will they begin moving toward a better way to connect first responders and make their already-difficult job a little easier? I am always the optimist and I believe it can happen if enough of the right people are willing to work together to make it happen. 

Year-End FirstNet Statistics

According to November reporting, FirstNet stats continue in a positive direction. The following statistics have been provided by FirstNet (Built with AT&T):

1.2 Million (plus) Connections
11,000 (plus) Agencies
100+ Applications in the FirstNet App Store
100+ FirstNet-Ready Devices Available Today
2.61 Million Square Miles of LTE Coverage120,000 + Square Miles Added in 2019

FirstNet continues to grow and add new agencies at an accelerated rate. For the most part, agencies that were waiting to see if FirstNet would provide the coverage they want and need have found the coverage is as good as if not better than expected. FirstNet Band 14 spectrum enables FirstNet users to operate mobile devices, deployables, suitcase cell sites, and devices using power levels at least six times higher than any other LTE spectrum. FirstNet MegaRange ™ high-power Band 14 capabilities are making a huge difference in rural, suburban, and metro areas and are providing FirstNet communications in places where never available before. 

I expect the next report from FirstNet (Built with AT&T) to show even more growth as the FirstNet Authority continues to put money back into the network and as AT&T continues to add 5G sites, which FirstNet members are permitted to use. 

There is more to be done, that is for sure. However, we are off to a great first five years and I, for one, am looking forward to what the next twenty years will bring as both FirstNet organizations continue to put public safety first. 

Winding Down

As we approach the end of another year, it is once again time to look back at the past year (more like the last eighteen months) and look forward to what 2022 will offer. I will be looking both ahead and back in the next few Advocates.

One thing is clear now. With the speed of technology advancements, it will be almost impossible to see very far into the future using anyone’s crystal ball. You may recall that just as we were settling into 4G LTE, technology folks came up with 5G, which is three different sets of technologies on three different portions of spectrum. This confuses both the general public and our first responders. Too many press releases are flying around touting Gigabit 5G data speeds when these speeds can only be reached when using mmWave spectrum. The downside is that 5G’s range is only about a football field. 

Many communities are not happy that companies deploying mmWave 5G seem to be able to plant poles in any right-of-way and install their 5G devices on them. Many cities and counties are fighting back and trying to find some common ground. 

In the 600-MHz band, 5G is only slightly faster and has slightly better latency than today’s LTE systems, it will not provide the Gigabit up and down speeds many people associate with 5G. 

Mid-band 5G is only beginning to be deployed, but it looks like it will fall somewhere between low-band (6000-7000 MHz) and mmWave 5G on the speed scale. And, of course, we are already hearing about 6G, which may be used for point-to-point short-distance communications on spectrum above 5G mmWave. 

We have been told that as 5G matures, it will be available in more types of devices including inbuilding and vehicular repeaters. And of course, as more 5G is deployed, new devices with built-in 5G bands will be needed.

Life in the world of wireless communications will be anything but stable over the next few years. There will be many “real soon now” announcements and great ideas for how different wireless technologies can be used. I think for the next few years all of us will need to be like folks from Missouri, the “SHOW ME STATE!”

Until next week…

Andrew M. Seybold
©2021, Andrew Seybold, Inc.


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