Public Safety Advocate: Survey, Happy Anniversary FirstNet, Less Expensive FirstNet Devices

We will be in Washington, DC next week to participate in a celebration of the 10th Anniversary of the signing of the bill that created FirstNet. Thus there will not be an Advocate next week but I will recap the anniversary activities the following week. 

The survey we posted three weeks ago is still up and, again, if you have not had time to respond, I hope you will be able to take a few minutes to complete it this week. Thanks to all who have responded and those who will respond this week. 

FirstNet: In the Beginning

I was hoping to have the book I am writing completed for this ten-year celebration but this project is taking more time than I anticipated. However, the following will give you a glimpse into what it took to convince Congress, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and the Executive Branch of the U.S. Government to provide spectrum for what we hoped would become a Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN). Obviously, we were successful, but it took many years and the project was divided into two distinct elements. The first was to convince the FCC to identify some of the 700-MHz Land Mobile Radio (LMR) spectrum that had already been allocated, re-allocate it for public safety, and designate 5X5 MHz of that spectrum for public-safety broadband. Eventually, the FCC issued a nationwide license for this ten megahertz of spectrum to the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST), which was created specifically to be the license holder.

We knew this would not be enough spectrum for a true nationwide broadband system for public safety but there was another 5X5 MHz of spectrum known as the “D-Block” that was adjacent to the original ten megahertz allocation. The D Block was slated for auction along with a slew of other 700-MHz spectrum intended for commercial network operators. During the first auction, the rules called for the D-Block spectrum to be shared between a commercial entity and public safety. I believe this was why the D Block was the only spectrum being auctioned that failed to receive a single bid that met the FCC’s minimum. 

At this point, the public-safety community realized it might have a shot at acquiring this spectrum and for it to be added to the ten megahertz of public-safety spectrum that had been licensed to the PSST. 

To this end, the Public Safety Alliance (PSA) was formed and, for the first time I can remember, the public-safety community, including law enforcement, fire, and Emergency Medical Services (EMS) came together and worked as one. Later, the US Governors Association, Mayors associations, and other organizations were added to the PSA.

We were not unopposed in our quest for this spectrum. Both T-Mobile and Sprint, which had not won any of the 700-MHz broadband spectrum, wanted the FCC to put the D Block back out for auction without requiring a commercial operator to partner with public safety. Meanwhile, a number of people at the FCC did all they could in an effort to prove public safety would never need anywhere near twenty megahertz of broadband spectrum nationwide basis. (The 20 MHz is made up of the ten megahertz already licensed to the PSST plus the ten-megahertz D Block.) To top it off, many within the US Congress were more interested in auction proceeds than providing D-Block spectrum for public safety. 

At this point, it was public safety up against the US Government. The PSA was working industriously with all three branches of the government, but the government moved slowly and it took many more years than it should have to be able to start on the public-safety broadband network. Bills had been introduced in both the Senate and the House that would have carved out this portion of spectrum and assigned it to public safety. However, none of them made it past the committee stage. 

While there is much more to this story including successes, failures, aspirations, and dashed expectations, the PSA and its supporters kept at it. 

Trips to DC were common as was walking the Hill talking to Congressmen and their staffers, meeting with the vice-president’s staff, and FCC filing after filing showing public safety would, in fact, need all twenty megahertz of this spectrum. 

As 2011 drew to a close, the PSA was pushing as hard as ever but it was not looking good. Then, just in time, a much larger bill for Middle Class Tax Relief was introduced and the D-Block spectrum and some funding was included in this bill. The bill passed both the House and the Senate relatively quickly and on February 22, 2012, it was signed into law. The D Block was awarded to public safety along with some funding for the network to be derived from future auction proceeds. 

The bill also provided funds for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and its Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR) Division for advancing technologies and addressing several other public-safety related matters. However, the bill also took a toll. Congress was convinced that the D Block was worth between $3 billion and $5 billion. If it was auctioned, those funds would go directly to reducing the public debt.

Therefore, they put in what they called a “give-back clause.” In exchange for the 700-MHz broadband spectrum, ten years in the future, public safety would have to return all of what was known as the T-Band spectrum. This spectrum was within the TV spectrum bands that were allocated to eleven metro areas that desperately needed more land mobile radio spectrum. The battle to recoup the T-Band was to convince Congress to nullify the “give-back” portion of the law. This took the entire ten years between the bill signing and when the T-Band spectrum was to have been turned over to the FCC and auctioned. 

This story does not end here, and as a famous radio personability used to say, “Stay tuned for the rest of the story.” The book will fill in details of the wins and many struggles public safety endured before the the nationwide public-safety network could finally be built.

The good news is that FirstNet (Built with AT&T) is up and running. The contractor (AT&T) has been ahead of the first five-year build schedule as detailed in the Request For Proposal (RFP). Today the network is operational and, for the most part, it is serving public safety in ways we envisioned and ways we had not even contemplated. 

FirstNet Devices

As a number of us have remarked over the years, both FirstNet (Built with AT&T) and the FirstNet Authority have put a great deal of effort into having as many FirstNet and Band-14 devices in the marketplace as quickly as possible. One technique was to convince handheld and tablet vendors to add Band 14 to many of their standard device offerings. As a result, we now have a large number of iOS (Apple) and Android devices that are certified by FirstNet (Built with AT&T) for use on the network. Prices have not increased much for standard iOS and Android offerings because production lines are spitting out millions of them. 

Another group of FirstNet-certified devices are built to standard smartphone specifications but hardened for more extreme conditions in the field. Here again, most of these devices serve more than the public-safety market. Hardened devices by Sonim, Kyocera, and others are being sold into construction and other markets that require hardened devices and, again, quantities are large enough to keep device prices down. 

That Leaves Land Mobile Radio Devices

LMR radios have been the mainstay for public-safety voice communications since before World War II and it is generally accepted that the first handheld radio was invented in 1937. Backpack radios were used during World War II, and several companies including Motorola and Linc Communications, developed more handheld radios. 

There are two main differences between “smartphones” and two-way radios. Production quantities are the first difference. Smartphones are built by the millions while LMR handhelds are built by the thousands. Until recently, quantities were lower because public safety had to purchase specific models of handheld radios built for the spectrum they use. Only recently did companies including Motorola, L3Harris, and others build LMR handheld radios that can accommodate different groups of LMR radio spectrum. LMR radios may have come a long way since they were introduced, but smartphones offer much more flexibility in spectrum choices (most cellular phones use many different frequencies that are controlled by the network).  

One reason both mobile and portable LMR devices are so expensive is that they cannot be made by the millions. Since there are so many technologies, different LMR devices have to support different technologies so each model is built in the low thousands. For example, a typical VHF radio might need to support analog, FM, and P25 Conventional. A typical UHF radio might add P25 trunked, and radios in the 700/800-MHz band will usually have the full complement of technologies onboard. Further, more and more LMR radio systems are encrypted. 

Finally, typical handheld radios have an external antenna and they are large, field-programmable, have removable batteries, and provide a connection for a speaker/microphone. In short, today’s LMR handhelds offer as many new whiz-bang features as engineers can cook up.

Bringing LMR Costs Down

Over the past two decades or so, LMR devices have become much more complex, yet in many cases, the cost to public safety has come down. Multi-band radios can still cost upwards of $4,000 per radio and a single-band radio might cost $600 and upward for a fairly plain vanilla radio. 

Many of today’s handhelds are built on the same chassis, but it isn’t the chassis that adds to the cost. What runs up the cost are the radio innards, how many different technologies are needed, and how many other options such as voice encryption are required. 

Dual-Mode LMR/FirstNet Radios

There are a few Dual-Mode LMR/FirstNet Radios on the market, and some vendors including Motorola and L3Harris offer LTE/multi-band LMR as well as FirstNet LMR and one or two LMR bands. The cost of these is still high. From what I have seen, until the LTE capabilities are built into these dual-mode radios they are not capable of running standard public-safety applications that are available today for both Android and iOS FirstNet-certified devices.  

NOTE: When Band 14 was first considered for public-safety broadband, there was some concern about Global Positioning System (GPS) interference when the LTE Band-14 radio is in service. I am not sure if this is still an issue, but there are rumors that some LMR/LTE vendors have not been able to build a radio that includes all of Band 14 in order to not cause interference to GPS devices or vice versa. I am under the impression that this has been corrected but I cannot verify this.

Motorola’s Motobro ION provides both Digital Mobile Radio (DMR), one of many PTT handheld technologies, and a full-up LTE radio that is capable of running Android applications, thus, any Android application can be used. 

Thoughts on Bringing Down Costs

Those who design and build radios, smartphones, tablets, and LMR mobile and handheld radios that would like to build combined products or even two products that communicate with each other have been trying to lower prices but low volumes have been a pricing problem. And while many other nations are moving to LTE and 5G, many of their LMR units are based on Tetra digital, which is not widely used in public safety in the United States. This means quantities for the rest of the world will not add enough units to drive prices down.

Motorola has an APX/Next and an LMR/LTE combined device along with a two-device solution. The LTE standalone device is called “LEX.” LEX is Android-based and it is connected to an APX single or multi-band radio so it acts as though it were a single, if degraded, device. My issues with this combination are two-fold. When I saw it last, it did not have a way to clearly indicate which of the two radios was being used for voice at any given time. The other is that Bluetooth, which works well, is being used for many purposes and used even more at an incident. The current version of Bluetooth supports several devices (sessions). There might be operational concerns about who is using Bluetooth at a major incident but this is still not clear. 

Dual-Mode LMR/FirstNet Radios

For many years, Panasonic Toughbook laptops led the PC industry. When Panasonic wanted to build in wireless data capabilities, there were many wireless networks to choose from. Panasonic’s answer was to design its Toughbooks to accept a wireless module. This would enable addition of Cellular Digital Packet Data (CDPD), RAM Mobile Data, ARDIS (Motorola), and future data technologies as they became available. This turned out to be a great call since Panasonic has easily added 3G and now 4G (LTE) to its products using what has become a pseudo-standard plug-in module. 

Many years ago, the PC industry formed the Personal Computer Memory Card International Association (PCMCIA) with the goal of standardizing an add-on memory card. (I was involved in this effort and perhaps my greatest contribution to the PCMCIA was to rename it “People Cannot Memorize Computer Industry Acronyms”). The PCMCIA card slot was also used by other vendors to add wireless data to any portable that sported a PCMCIA slot. Before the PCMCIA slot went away, it became a double-high slot capable of more and different types of modules. 

The PC industry found that the slot approach made a lot of sense and it is still in use today. It is a safe bet that if technologies change, say from LTE to 5G or a combination thereof, the PC portable community can simply upgrade the module in its next portable release and be up-to-date. 

When LTE was becoming the “next big thing,” I was hired as a consultant to a large Japanese LMR company and asked to write a report about what I thought it should do in a future world where LMR and LTE would both be used in the mobile world. My recommendation, which they did not use, was to build a slot in every mobile radio it makes. Then an LTE mobile could be inserted into the radio and be connected to a laptop in the vehicle. By doing this, a single radio would provide both LMR and LTE capabilities and the LTE portion would also have the advantage of an external antenna adding talk-out and in-range. 

I wonder if the module approach might not work in today’s world. Consider a vendor that decided to build a series of modules that could fit together to provide a smartphone, an LMR radio, or both. I, for one, think this might be an idea worth investigating. After all, the goal for public safety is to have communications tools that will enable them to better perform tasks, create after-action reports more easily, and choose the type of device they will carry. Some modules could be crafted to include an LTE/5G Android-capable unit, perhaps Apple could step up and build an iOS LTE/5G module or license its iOS to another vendor (over time, Apple did license its desktop and mobile products to several other vendors), and LMR modules could be built for one band up to all the bands in a single module, perhaps an LMR module that provides off-network voice PTT instead of including standard two-way channels. 

I believe two things about this idea. First, it is doable. Second, the vendor community will hate it because current offerings could be updated merely by upgrading a single module or two instead of upgrading the entire device. Chargers and removable batteries could also be standardized like in the cellular industry (using the USB C series connector).

Public safety needs and deserves the best communications tools we can give them at a reasonable price. What is next? Which vendor will step up to this challenge first?

Note: Sonim could have been first with its slide-on addition to its Android smartphone. It built in off-network voice but in the unlicensed portion of the 900-MHz band, thus transmit power was very limited and could never fill the need for true off-network PTT. 

Back in two weeks, 

Andrew M. Seybold
©2022, Andrew Seybold, Inc.


1 Comment on "Public Safety Advocate: Survey, Happy Anniversary FirstNet, Less Expensive FirstNet Devices"

  1. Thanks Andy for the trip down memory lane. Man, so much has happened (and most of it good) for public safety in the past 15 years. I look forward to your book to relive many of the great accomplishments public safety (and you, and Harlin and many others) worked so hard to make a reality. Happy NPSBN anniversary! Safe travels.

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