Public Safety Advocate: T-Band, IWCE, FirstNet

T-Band Call to Action

The T-Band (470-512 MHz) is spectrum used by both the public safety community and business users in 11 metro areas of the United States. When the bill creating FirstNet was passed in 2012, Congress required public safety to “give back” some spectrum in exchange for the 10 MHz of spectrum then known as the D-block adjacent to the 700-MHz spectrum that had been reallocated from wideband (50-KHz) channels. This was to enable public safety to deploy its own nationwide public safety broadband network. Congress decided the T-band would be a perfect giveback since it would be auctioned, once returned, for millions of dollars. Since the bill was passed, the major cities and surrounding areas that make use of this spectrum have been unable to find either the spectrum or the funding to relocate, in a timely fashion, their many radio networks that call this spectrum home. See the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) T-Band report.

Since the requirement to give back the T-Band spectrum became law in February of 2012, many agencies and departments including Los Angeles, New York, Boston, and others have been working with Congress to try to repeal this portion of the FirstNet legislation. Partially due to the hard work of Jim Goldstein, head of Government Relations for the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and others, a bill has been introduced in the House of Representatives and has been sent to committee. The bill is known as “Don’t Break Up the T-Band Act of 2018” or U.S.H.R. 5085.

The bill is the shortest I have ever read. Section 1 simply states it can be called, “Don’t Break Up the T-Band Act of 2018.” Section two reads:

“SEC. 2. REPEAL OF REQUIREMENT TO REALLOCATE AND AUCTION T-BAND SPECTRUM.

(a) Repeal.—Section 6103 of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 (47 U.S.C. 1413) is repealed.

(b) Clerical Amendment.—The table of contents in section 1(b) of such Act is amended by striking the item relating to section 6103.”

At the NPTSC meeting held on March 9, the last day of the IWCE conference, Jim Goldstein updated the NPTSC board and attendees on the status of this bill and the pending introduction of a similar bill in the U.S. Senate. Now I am issuing my first CALL TO ACTION request. No matter what your party or leanings, let your U.S. Representatives know now that you are in favor of this bill proceeding through committee and being passed. Later, when the Senate version is introduced, I will issue another CALL TO ACTION to reach out to your U.S. Senators. Even if you do not live or work in a T-band metro area, it is important that you let Congress know it must support public safety by passing this bill. It is too important not to speak up, and Congress does not want to go against the public safety community. Don’t wait: Put this on your urgent to-do list now!

You think T-Band giveback does not affect you and your department? Think again. If the federal government can simply pass legislation to require the return of the T-Band without provisions to replace the T-Band spectrum and funding to offset a move to other spectrum, then it can certainly decide in the near future that FirstNet is up and running so public safety does not need some or all of its LMR spectrum and pass a law to take that away, too. Public safety has a lot of clout when it speaks as the sum of the agencies and organizations as demonstrated during our quest to obtain the D-block and add 10 MHz of broadband spectrum to the public safety nationwide 10 MHz we had already obtained. It was the fact that public safety, governors, mayors, and other groups and organizations all came together in a unified effort to appeal to Congress, the Executive Branch, and the FCC. We need to stay together to ensure the T-Band is kept as it is for many years to come.

IWCE 2018

For the first time in a very long time, IWCE was not held in Las Vegas, but Orlando, which is also a great convention city. However, when you weigh in spring break visitors and flights in and out of the area it can be tricky to plan what you want, and even the TSA pre-Check lanes were experiencing long delays processing travelers. Even so, the conference itself was top notch. Perhaps it was because this was the first full IWCE after FirstNet the Authority awarded the contract to AT&T. The mood was upbeat, the sessions I attended and those I was part of all had good crowds, and this year it seems many more people were asking questions after the panels and/or offering up their advice. I always enjoy it when those in the audience ask questions so we can learn about their concerns.

The show floor was hopping. Motorola unwrapped its new FirstNet phone that also connects to a Motorola handheld via Bluetooth, Samsung was there with its new offering that is FirstNet-capable including band 14, and Sonim was touting two new offerings with accessory plugs for LMR radio interfaces and other uses. Harris was again showing its XL-200 and waiting to attain AT&T approval for the band 14 and AT&T broadband that can be built into the device. There were more offerings that are FirstNet-ready but I was once again surprised by the lack of tablets on the show floor. I have been thinking that these will become the standard in-vehicle devices because they can be easily removed from the vehicle and put into use by the incident commander whose first set of responsibilities is to size up the incident and make sure the proper units are responding and as they begin arriving where they are to be deployed or staged. It seems to me that a tablet with more screen real estate would make the incident commanders’ job easier.

One interesting note. Each year I look at all the Chinese companies offering handheld as well as mobile products. Most are type 90 approved although many are not what I consider to be rugged or have the image and spurious rejection needed for receivers in a metro area with lots of RF. Each year they are gaining in their knowledge and their products show it. This year many are offering analog and DMR devices, can P25 be far behind? I have several of these radios I keep in my vehicle so I can have them available if needed. They are inexpensive enough that they might even be considered throwaways. I am curious to see how many advances they will have made by next year’s IWCE and if any will offer both LMR and LTE functionality. Their first market for this type of product will be volunteer fire departments that are not normally well funded and have to fight for every dime they need to spend. This is one group of folks I will be keeping my eye on every year and if Motorola, Tait, Harris, and JVCKenwood are smart, they will be doing the same.

The Sessions

Once again there were simply too many sessions I wanted to attend and many overlapped with others. It is becoming more difficult to choose as the number of conference sessions grows each year. One category of sessions that might have been over done are those dedicated to push-to-talk over FirstNet, or over FirstNet and interoperable with LMR systems. Each of these sessions featured a slightly different set of topics but they all kept coming back to PTT over FirstNet standards, and inter- and intra-network interoperability. Even the session I moderated on Thursday that was billed as a Mission Critical Push-To-Talk roundtable was no exception.

I started my panel with the following comments (being the moderator means I can do this!):

  • Neither the FirstNet Authority nor FirstNet built with AT&T has issued a statement about whether multiple PTT vendors will be permitted on FirstNet, if they must interoperate with any and all other PTT vendors’ products on FirstNet, and how they are to interface with existing LMR systems.
  • In the field, many sales types (not clear whose sales types) are saying that only the PTT from Kodiak (now Motorola) is permitted on FirstNet.
  • ESChat is now the first PTT application to be 100-percent FirstNet certified for inclusion in the App store.
  • ESChat, BeOn, Mutualink, and others all have existing PTT customers over LTE and some are cross-connected to their own LMR networks as well.
  • Several large agencies and entire counties have told me they will not join FirstNet until it issues a definitive statement regarding the go-forward strategy for PTT over FirstNet.
  • I have been told by some that other PTT vendors are welcome on FirstNet but there will be no move to create an interoperable PTT over FirstNet platform until the 3GPP standards have been ratified.
  • I don’t believe public safety wants to wait that long for 3GPP standards to be ratified, tested, and then implemented.

The panel members, all professionals in their own right, came down on the side of waiting for 3GPP standards and living with the inability to interoperate until then. They seem to believe that the standard will be available a lot sooner than I do. Next up was the issue of FirstNet to LMR interoperability. Motorola, on the panel, was promoting the ISSI P25 interface. However, as someone in the audience pointed out, Motorola’s ISSI solution sells for more than $400,000 up to a million or more yet other vendors offer ISSI for as little as $40,000 for a system. It was also pointed out that ISSI would not handle analog FM and does not pass some of the needed information between an LTE and LMR network. At the end of the day, once again with no direction from either FirstNet, it appears as though PTT over LTE will flounder along for a while longer and not be addressed head-on.

The bottom line for me is that a number of agencies FirstNet would like to have join FirstNet will stay where they are as long as there is uncertainty about whether their favorite flavor of PTT over LTE will be supported on FirstNet and if there will be progress made toward the two interoperabilities: The interoperability between FirstNet’s LTE network and existing LMR networks, and then the interoperability between the various flavors of PTT over FirstNet. There is already concern among some in the public safety sector that PTT on FirstNet will simply mean a lack of interoperability yet again. This time it will not be due to different portions of the radio spectrum and different analog and digital technologies, it will be because of multiple PTT systems being used over FirstNet. If no one can see a short-term path to interoperability we will be moving back in time, not forward as we should be with FirstNet.

My final comments about IWCE are to profusely thank Stacy and Sandy who listened to what I was trying to do to honor Tom Sorely at the NPSTC meeting and moved heaven and earth to obtain permission for us to bring in Dunkin Donuts coffee and donuts for the NPSTC meetings. Other co-conspirators for this off-the-books and clandestine operation included Marilyn Ward and her wonderful staff at NPSTC. Everyone who attended the NPSTC meeting on Friday was treated to Tom Sorley’s favorite coffee and donuts. He used to drive me 20 miles out of our way to get a cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee to start off a meeting. The last time I saw him with Dunkin Donuts coffee in his hand was at the SPOC meeting in Texas when I came up the escalator and he handed me a cup! So, thanks to all who helped make this possible and thanks to those who drank a cup or two and thought of Tom Sorely, how much he did for public safety, and how very much he will be missed.

FirstNet 

FirstNet was an even more integral part of IWCE this year. There were keynotes, sessions, and more directly related to FirstNet. It was announced at IWCE that FirstNet, the Authority, had given a task order to FirstNet built with AT&T to start the band 14 (FirstNet) spectrum build-out. Task orders for various aspects of the network build-out, operation, training, and more are released by FirstNet the Authority based on milestones reached by FirstNet. So far, FirstNet is running well ahead of what anyone would have guessed because AT&T included not only band 14 but all of its own LTE and upcoming 5G spectrum and deployments.

In one of the panels I was on, one panel member who identified himself as being paid by Verizon for consulting services, spoke about competition for FirstNet being good for public safety. Another panel member has been deeply involved long before FirstNet was created, and he made it clear that public safety’s preference all along has been for a single, nationwide broadband network. I have repeatedly stated that if AT&T had responded to an RFP that said the winner will be awarded for the entire network but that one competitor will try to keep its public safety installed base by vying for the customers, I have to believe AT&T’s bid response would have been different and may not have been as inclusive. Bidding on a contract you think is winner-take-all is not the same as bidding on a contract where others will be invited to the party after it is awarded.

FirstNet’s booth on the show floor was well done with a hanging sign so it was easy to spot. Every time I stopped in there were crowds talking with FirstNet/AT&T people, the mood was certainly upbeat, and I seemed to run into someone I have talked to but not met in person, so I had an opportunity to meet many more of those working for AT&T who are dedicated to FirstNet. I visited other booths to spend some time not only with the big companies but walking the edges of the show floor and visiting with some of the smaller companies.

While doing this, I was hearing two vastly different views of FirstNet from these smaller companies. The first view is that they are charged up about FirstNet and are watching and waiting for opportunities to sell their equipment or services into the public safety market including FirstNet users. Some told me now that AT&T has the FirstNet contract, AT&T will be controlling who does what with what products. I tried disagreeing with this perspective pointing out that LMR systems will remain in place for a long time and that while AT&T has a 25-year contract with FirstNet, that does not preclude smaller vendors from finding a niche play and making some money. After repeating myself a number of times, I realized that talking to folks with this attitude is counterproductive because they want to believe what they are saying and they want to blame FirstNet for what they see as their impending failure in the market. Trying to change these people’s minds is not possible so now I simply move on to the next booth as soon as possible.

FirstNet, the network being built by AT&T, is moving quickly forward. (I would really like to start calling it “FirstNet Powered by AT&T,” it sounds better to me!) The latest update from FirstNet shows that more than 350 agencies in more than 40 states and territories have already become FirstNet members. I am not at all sure what AT&T promised as far as adoption numbers it expected (this was to be included in the RFP response) but I have to believe AT&T/FirstNet is more than happy with these numbers now that we are coming up to the first anniversary of the RFP award. I know from conversations with clients and potential clients that the number of user agencies will continue to grow in the next few months.

Once the FirstNet core is in place we will be able to see the full impact of the network and watch it continue to grow with new users, devices, and applications. None of us involved in pre-FirstNet activities would have believed these numbers could be reached in the first year of the network build. There is more to be done but FirstNet is more real after only one year than we thought it would be after year 3 or more of the build. All good. Bumps in the road ahead? Yes, plenty to go around. Mis-steps? Some of these too. But those charged with making FirstNet happen are not working on this project only part of the time. These are people who believe in FirstNet and are assigned to working on a full-time basis and, like many of us, more than full time because we are deeply committed to getting this network up and running as quickly and completely as possible.

Conclusion

First: Please do not forget to contact your U.S. Representatives and tell them how important passage of H.R. 5085 “Don’t Break Up the T-Band Bill of 2018” is. It is vitally important. Even if this bill is not passed but is later added to another bill, it is important that those in Congress know that the ENTIRE public safety community is watching and pushing for passage in one form or another. Also, we need to stay vigilant for what we believe will be the U.S. Senate bill covering the same issue. Your short email, note, or call to your representatives makes a huge difference, and encourage your friends to contact their Congressional representatives as well.

IWCE was a huge success this year, one of the best I have attended and I have been to a lot of them. As always, it amazes me that Stacey and her small staff, aided by Donny Jackson, can host a show this complex and have it turn out so well. Having hosted shows that were of course smaller than IWCE, I am impressed with the attention to detail and the fact that no matter what the subject, when I comment or call about something they respond right away. A great conference takes a lot of planning and hard work and it shows every year with IWCE. Again, thanks to Stacey and her staff for their hard work and ability to put this together each year.

This was FirstNet’s first full IWCE with the contract awarded, all 56 territories and states opted in, lots of agencies signed up and using the network, full pre-emption, and soon the FirstNet core (in reality, multiple cores in different locations around the country for full redundancy). IWCE was alive with FirstNet and that is a good thing. Those who are still sceptics continued to share their views but as the network becomes real and is put into service, even the sceptics will have to realize, at some point, that in spite of all the daunting tasks and milestones put in the way, no matter how much credibility the detractors have had, the one thing that has always remained in front of us is the goal of a truly interoperable nationwide broadband network and it is happening now!

Andrew M Seybold
©2018 Andrew Seybold, Inc.

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1 Comment on "Public Safety Advocate: T-Band, IWCE, FirstNet"

  1. Thanks for this very comprehensive report, Andy. Those of us who were not able to attend this year can get an excellent feel for the mood of the show, which sets expectations in general for the coming year (market intelligence!).

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