Public Safety Advocate: The FirstNet Authority Roadmap

Welcome to November 2020. The election is finally behind us, Covid-19 continues to wreak havoc in the United States, and the number of wildfires, major storms, and hurricanes continue to make our first responders’ work even more essential. When FirstNet was created in February of 2012, it was a result of the public-safety community having banded together across disciplines. The Public Safety Alliance (PSA) sought and received support from a variety of organizations including Governors, Mayors, and most Land Mobile Radio (LMR) venders.

In some sense, the law was quite optimistic when it came to funding this new quasi-government authority. The initial $7 billion was to come from future spectrum auctions; not from the U.S. Treasury. The theory was that the network would be built by a private company in a public/private partnership using the $7 billion raised by the auctions. The incentive for the private company to bid on the network was that it would gain secondary access to Band 14 spectrum for commercial use. The FirstNet Authority (the Authority) was to pay the private company as it was deploying the network and milestones were completed over a sixty-month (five-year) timeline. 

Once the network was generating revenue, a portion of that revenue was to be returned to the Authority. There are two purposes for these funds. First is to ensure the Authority remains a self-funded entity that does not rely on funds from the U.S. Treasury. The second was to build reserves to reinvest in the network or other undertakings that need funding to ensure the FirstNet network remains up-to-date and that new technologies can be evaluated as they come to market and funded by the Authority if deemed appropriate.

As reported in the Advocate, the first set of Authority-approved investments back into the network included funds to upgrade the FirstNet core (brains of the network) to be able to handle 4G LTE as well as the new 5G technologies being deployed by AT&T. Authorized FirstNet (Built with AT&T) customers will be able to use both technologies going forward. To make intelligent decisions about what needs to be funded as money becomes available, the Authority uses its existing field resources and discusses with the public-safety community what it would like to see in the way of network or other improvements that would be of value. 

The FirstNet Authority roadmap is a compilation of input from the first-responder community, joint discussions with the Authority and FirstNet (Built with AT&T), and others. It has been created by members of the Authority’s staff, submitted to the Authority Board of Directors, and approved. Funds will be allocated to one or more of the roadmap objectives as they become available.  

In its release, the Authority stated, “The FirstNet Authority Roadmap is designed to guide the growth, evolution, and advancement of FirstNet. Developed with input from public safety, industry, government, and our network contractor, AT&T, the Roadmap provides a view of public safety’s operational needs and technology trends for mobile broadband communications over the next five years.” 

This version of the roadmap is structured around six domains:

Courtesy of FirstNet.Gov Roadmap

The report describes these six domains and discusses in detail the role each domain plays in the overall Public Safety Nationwide Broadband Network (NPSBN), the public-safety community’s “Take” on each domain, and roadmap recommendations. The current version of the roadmap is a must-read for anyone currently using FirstNet or trying to decide whether they want to join the FirstNet community. 

Each of the six domain sections starts with a Vision Statement and a Domain Overview, which is a great way to make sure you are up-to-date with each topic. This is followed by a set of priorities:

The Roadmap Priorities for the FirstNet Core are as follows:

Following each set of priorities is an explanation of what makes up the domain. For example, when discussing the core, we learn it is the Evolved Packet Core (EPC) as defined by the 3GPP standards body and it provides control and switching of data for the FirstNet LTE network including authentications, session and mobility management, network security, and Quality of service Priority and Preemption (QPP). Then it describes the investment as an upgrade to EPC capabilities to provide both FirstNet LTE and 5G functionality. 

Coverage Domain

The Coverage Vision statement is concise: “The FirstNet Authority envisions the FirstNet Network will be available to public safety personnel when and where they need it most.” The public-safety community’s Take discusses the need for transparency concerning where coverage does and does not exist and public safety’s desire for a say in where coverage needs to be expanded. Takes also touches on reliable fixed coverage, temporary and unique public-safety coverage, and network reliability and hardening. 

The roadmap priorities for coverage include three areas:

  1. Outdoor coverage, especially Band 14 (public-safety spectrum).
  2. Reliable inbuilding coverage in hard-to-reach locations and the desire to advocate changes in policies, codes, and standards to facilitate inbuilding coverage.
  3. Unique coverage solutions advancement: address and support unique coverage solutions that enable public safety to rapidly provide coverage in a variety of outage scenarios. 

This domain is probably the most important for those not using FirstNet. From what I have observed, the issue of coverage between FirstNet and other broadband networks is the prime decision point for those considering joining FirstNet. As stated before, FirstNet (Built with AT&T) is well ahead of the sixty month build-out requirements put in place by the Authority. The move to 5G was not mandated but it will happen thanks to AT&T and its commitment to public safety as demonstrated by its continuing addition to FirstNet coverage capabilities. 

Situational Awareness Domain

Here again the Vision statement sets up the goals: “The FirstNet Authority envisions real-time access, collection and distribution of information concerning personnel, threats, hazards and conditions in a manner tailored to public safety operations.”

Two priorities are identified in this section and both need to be addressed soon. Unfortunately, the solutions are not 100-percent under the public-safety community’s control. In some cases, the goals have not been reached because, for example, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has not yet tightened its location requirements. This is also an area where the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR) division are spending a great deal of time as are vendors that want to solve both issues sooner rather than later. It is interesting that this section’s goals apply not only for our public-safety personnel, these services are also needed to locate citizens who may be trapped in a structure or elsewhere.

The two priorities are:

  1. Provide for personnel location: Promote technology solutions that result in accurate locations of first responders and display that information through effective mapping and visualization.
  2. Location services integration: Promote integration of x-, y-, and z-axis data with 3D mapping solutions and public safety’s existing technology platforms.

Until recently, location determination has been based on a 2-dimensional model while what is really needed is 3-dimension location, or as the public-safety community puts it, “to the floor and to the door.” 

This is perhaps the most significant issue that need to be resolved. Fortunately, a number of companies are working toward solutions and with the assistance of federal government personnel who are funding the research, new solutions will be coming to FirstNet in a relativity short period of time.

Voice Communications Domain

The Vision: “The FirstNet Authority envisions a nationwide network that provides high-quality, reliable voice communications leveraging mission critical technologies to ensure the most advanced feature set is available for first responders.”  

I happen to disagree in this area and believe the Authority has backed itself into a corner. Its domain Overview starts with:

“Voice communications continues to be the fundamental form of public safety communications. In the current market, public safety agencies continue to rely on LMR for critical communications while augmenting voice communications with LTE. A 3GPP-compliant MCPTT offering is a requirement of the FirstNet Authority’s contract with AT&T, and AT&T launched the initial introduction of FirstNet Push-To-Talk (FirstNet PTT) in March 2020. The coexistence of FirstNet PTT and LMR will provide for integrated voice capabilities in the near term.”

The following is from The FirstNet Authority Roadmap Priorities for Voice communications:

  1. “Operationalize FirstNet PTT: Work with public safety to assist in operationalizing the FirstNet PTT solution by educating on relevant use cases and supporting efforts to establish relevant nationwide governance and policies. 
  2. Active Role in Standards: Continue to play an active role in emerging 3GPP and other relevant standards development focused on MCPTT, MCVideo, and MCData, as well as dispatch advancement.
  3. Critical Features: Advocate for continued implementation of critical Mission-Critical X features such as device-to-device communications, LMR-LTE interconnection, and dispatch capabilities based on public-safety operational needs.”

Because Mission-Critical Push-To-Talk (MCPTT) is a 3GPP standard does not mean it will be the best push-to-talk solution. This is the first application-layer standard to come out of the 3GPP, and I don’t believe we have enough input from the public-safety community to say, “It is the 3GPP standard, therefore, we must support it.”

At the moment, MCPTT is far behind the curve when it comes to devices and operating systems supported, and it lacks integration with all the various land mobile radio systems. There are at least seven FirstNet-approved PTT applications and only one claims to meet the 3GPP MCPTT standard. Yet other options for PTT do provide access to almost all the devices on FirstNet, and most have a good track record for integrating with existing LMR systems. 

This leads me to ask how, then, The FirstNet Authority and/or FirstNet (Built with AT&T) will reconcile the push-to-talk interoperability issue and how long will it take? How will they convince thousands of PTT-over-FirstNet users and users that have chosen other PTT applications to switch to the 3GPP standard, how long will this take, and can either FirstNet organization decree it has to happen? 

Which leads me to another reality. Some agencies have found they need to subscribe to two broadband networks for the coverage they want/need. Today, over-the-top PTT applications work on multiple networks but, by definition, MCPTT systems require the server to be located within the network. This will certainly make it more difficult to accommodate cross-network PTT. 

In discussions with several vendors, I have learned work is underway to provide inter-PTT application interoperability. It is unknown what delays might be incurred if the solution is cloud-based, and how features such as talk groups will be accommodated. Yet some think it is doable, which leads me back to my original question. Because it is a 3GPP standard, is it the only PTT application suitable for the public-safety community? 

Finally, I part with the Authority’s view as set forth in its statement about off-network device-to-device communications, simplex, talk-around, or whatever you want to call it. So far, the 3GPP has been touting ProSe for LTE off-network communications. I will tell you once again, today two people can communicate farther by yelling at each other than ProSe can communicate. The 3GPP answer seems to be to use a third device as a relay. I contend that this is not a practical solution during major incidents where resources are constantly being moved around. 

I recently had discussions with vendors about how they meet or do not meet MCPTT criteria called “Key Performance Indications (KPIs).” According to these discussions, the two most important KPIs concern delay times in setting up a PTT call and hearing a PTT call. 

http://lteps.blogspot.com/2016/04/mcptt-latency-requirements.html

I would like to see a chart comparing these times with analog FM PTT, P25 and P25 trunking times, and then cross-application times and delays. One may exist, but I have not found it. Finally, I would like to see a plan for how we will transition from where we are today to where public safety needs to be tomorrow: To be able to hold push-to-talk sessions with anyone on the FirstNet network and, hopefully, with public-safety users on other networks as well as their own local land mobile radio networks. 

Secure Information Exchange Domain

You certainly cannot argue with the Vision for this section: “The FirstNet Authority envisions secure, reliable, and easy-to-use access to and sharing of critical information across a variety of sources.” However, like the PTT section, this will take some doing to be fully implemented. Currently, many agencies are using applications they are familiar with and databases don’t always align with others. In reality, the issue starts in the world of 9-1-1 and dispatch since most Computer-Aided Dispatch (CAD) systems are not capable of sharing their data with other vendors’ CAD systems. 

The priorities are good: Database Integration and Application Integration. There are also a number of issues with this section including the lack of funds, but there seems to be a sense in the public-safety community that the Authority can play a key role in these areas by spurring on coordination activities. 

User Experience Domain

The Vision: “The FirstNet Authority envisions a user experience driven by public safety operational needs that enables users to stay focused on their primary mission.” Roadmap priorities include mission-enabling applications and mission-capable devices. The key technologies listed include augmented/virtual reality and hands-free interfaces. 

This is also a domain of significant interest to public safety. Many who live and breath communications in one form or another tend to become carried away with new technologies that have more bells and whistles and want to include extras that end up making the communications experience more complicated instead easier. I keep reminding myself and others that those on the front lines don’t give a damn about anything more than doing their job and being able to communicate quickly and easily. The more we throw at them, the more confusion we introduce into what should be simply one more tool for them to use. 

The hands-free portion of this domain will make first responders’ lives easier IF the technologists make it easy to use. Heads-up displays, voice commands, and different visual views of an incident will assist first responders in the field. However, when it comes to voice, we learned some hard lessons many years ago when Voice-Operated switching (VOX) became popular. Some of the first VOX devices used by public safety were activated every time the device heard a voice. Often, the resultant radio traffic was not a message at all, only a few choice words when a firefighter stumbled and fell. Today these devices are 1,000-percent better, but they must be activated only when needed, not by incidental comments. 

Here again, PSCR and the Authority have spent a great deal of time and effort researching and working with vendors to develop solutions. As a result, there have been demonstrations of some really good solutions to both visual awareness and voice activation. 

Conclusions

The final pages of this roadmap are an addendum that takes a deep dive into the roadmap research by presenting more detail on the hows and whys of what is included in the report, and providing some examples of how developments come about. 

Again, I believe anyone interested in public safety and FirstNet should read this report, at least the beginning and the domains that are most applicable to you and your agency or organization. Be sure to spend some time in the last section as well since it reinforces how much research has gone into this document. To those at the Authority who worked so diligently putting this together, congratulations on a great job and what appears to be a really good roadmap for the next few years!

Winding Down

FirstNet (Built with AT&T) has released its latest report on network deployment and uptake for the third quarter of 2020. The results show the total number of FirstNet connections has reached 1.7 million compared to 750,000 last August (2019). The number of agencies that are now part of the FirstNet universe stands at more than 14,000 while last August, only fourteen months earlier, that number was sitting at 9,000 agencies. This is a good indication of the continued growth in the number of users on FirstNet and the increase in the number of devices. The Urgent Communications article calling out these numbers also states that there are a variety of other types of devices on the network in addition to traditional smartphones. 

As mentioned in a previous Advocate and many press articles, there has been a rapid growth in FirstNet users since the beginning of the pandemic in the United States. Some of this growth can be attributed to concerns many within the public-safety community had about the capacity of broadband networks, both wired and wireless. Because FirstNet customers have access not only to all of AT&T’s LTE spectrum and soon 5G spectrum, Band 14, the 20 MHz of 700-MHz spectrum allocated to the Authority by the law that created FirstNet along with priority and pre-emption capabilities, no matter how congested the commercial side of networks become, FirstNet has this 20 MHz of prime spectrum that can be used 100-percent for public safety in areas where it is needed.

Until next week… 

Andrew M. Seybold, Sr. 
©2020, Andrew Seybold, Inc.

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2 Comments on "Public Safety Advocate: The FirstNet Authority Roadmap"

  1. The most comprehensive overview I have seen yet – thanks for capturing all this.

  2. Walt thanks for the great comment, I was impressed at the work product developed by the Authority for their roadmap so I wanted to try and discuss it in as much detail as I could.
    Andy

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