Well, I missed an Advocate last week. When we returned from our mini-cation, Murphy was here to welcome us home. If you don’t know about Murphy, you can find out about him here. In any event, we are back and this week is a run-up to two 10-year anniversaries: the FirstNet Authority and FirstNet (Built with AT&T). Next, we will look at a completely new Internet of Things (IoT) device I think will be a best-seller on FirstNet. Finally, I am suggesting once again that if you do not come from the public-safety community but are working for the FirstNet Authority or FirstNet (Built with AT&T), it is time for you to take a ride-along.
In the last two Advocates, we provided a recap of how far FirstNet (Built with AT&T) has come in only five or so years. February 21, 2022 will mark the ten-year anniversary of the signing of the bill that, among many other things, created FirstNet and the FirstNet Authority. The FirstNet Authority was designated as an Independent Authority (IA) under the auspices of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) which, in turn, is part of the U. S. Department of Commerce (DOC). It took a few years to get the FirstNet Authority up and running. The first year or so we had a board of directors with no staff. Then some consultants were hired to work under the direction of the board. At this point, it still appeared to many of us that it was taking too long to form a FirstNet Authority that operated with its own staff. The funding was there, since the U.S. Treasury advanced FirstNet a $Billion to hold it over until the FCC held its next spectrum auction (AWS3). Of the $45+ Billion received from the auction, $7 Billion became available to the FirstNet Authority. The balance went to the U.S. Treasury to pay down the national debt. Many of us considered $7 Billion to be a starter-kit for FirstNet because we all knew $7 billion was not nearly enough to build out the network. However, it was enough to run FirstNet and to pay the potential contractor as it met milestones specified in the FirstNet Request For Proposal (RFP).
Then there were more delays. Some were self-inflicted by the Board and some were due to premature publishing of the first RFP. After meeting with potential bidders and over time, modifications were made to the RFP, it was finally published, and there were three bidders. Only one bidder was an existing broadband network operator. It looked like this bidder, AT&T, would win the contract. However, one of the other bidders disagreed with that outcome and filed a law suit in Federal Court to block the award. This, of course, caused even longer delays. The court ended up ruling in favor of FirstNet, opening the door to award the 25-year contract to AT&T in March of 2017, a full five years after FirstNet’s creation.
FirstNet was structured to be a private/public partnership. The FirstNet Authority oversees the contractor (AT&T), and during the first five-year build-out period, each time AT&T reached a contract milestone it was awarded a portion of the $6+ Billion set aside by the Authority.
The public-safety community has been well served by this public/private partnership. As far as I am concerned, one of the most significant benefits is that AT&T did not wait until it had built out Band 14. In its bid, AT&T offered up all its existing LTE spectrum with full pre-emption and priority access for public safety. This, in itself, was a big departure from before FirstNet was formed. In the early days of our quest for a nationwide broadband network, both Verizon and AT&T stood up at a meeting held by the Public Safety Spectrum Alliance (PSSA) and stated they would not provide priority and pre-emption on their existing network because they were afraid it would impact their commercial customers. Yet today, first responders do have full priority and pre-emption not only on Band 14, but on the rest of AT&T’s spectrum. AT&T has also extended access to all its low- and mid-band 5G spectrum.
After AT&T offered priority and pre-emption on all its LTE spectrum, another commercial operator that had not bothered to bid on the contract soon followed and stated it, too, would offer priority and pre-emption on its network. However, there is a huge difference between these two networks. As we worked toward convincing Congress to provide the spectrum and some funding for FirstNet, the Public Safety Alliance (PSA) also filed for a network identifier (from the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS)).
Every network in the world has at least one Public Land Mobile Network Identifier (MSINh This identifier validates that the user belongs on that network, and when users are out of coverage, their device is roaming on another network. This network identifier provides an absolute verification that the FirstNet user is a bona fide member of a public-safety agency. One perk AT&T received when it won the bid is that it can let its commercial customers use public-safety Band 14 when FirstNet users do not need the entire band for incidents. The identifier enables the network operator to clear Band 14 of commercial users when public safety needs the spectrum for local, regional, statewide or, hopefully never, nationwide emergency incidents.
We have come a long way since 2012, but public safety actually began its effort to obtain a nationwide swath of spectrum many years prior to Congressional approval. It seems like it has taken a very long time to arrive where we are today, but building out a new network, even over the top of an existing network, is neither easy nor fast. Even so, as we approach the end of the first five-year build-out period, AT&T has managed to complete almost every milestone laid out in the contract ahead of time.
There will be a celebration or two on February 21, 2022, the 10-year anniversary of the signing of the law that created FirstNet. I have also heard that at IWCE in March, both FirstNet and IWCE will be commemorating the FirstNet Authority and FirstNet network anniversaries. There will likely be more celebrations to recognize the efforts of the many people who worked many years to convince Congress, the FCC, and the Executive Branch of the U.S. Government to create what is now a successful Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN) known as FirstNet (Built with AT&T). FirstNet has made possible new ways to inform first responders about an incident both while on their way and while they are on scene. Using FirstNet, the incident’s status can be updated in real time via voice, text, images, and video streams. Congratulations to both the Authority and FirstNet (Built with AT&T) on their anniversaries!
Not Your Father’s IoT Device
Those who are long-term Advocate readers (thank you) know that when I am told about a new device that I believe will find a big following with FirstNet users, I am happy to take a deep dive into the device and what can be done with it.
But before I describe this new Internet of Things (IoT) device, a little history is in order. Like so many other wireless technologies and devices, there was a multi-year precursor to what has become the Internet of Things market. When people think if IoT, if they do at all, they think it is all about sensors, both body-worn and placed on shipments to assure, for example, their temperature in transit does not go higher or lower than the safe margins set by the shipper.
It may surprise you that Aeris, a Silicon Valley firm that was founded in 1992, was the first known company to use wireless to send short bursty amounts of data from devices in the field to a central location where the data was monitored and actions were taken if needed. In the early days, network operators did not want any part of IoT because it did not appear to be a meaningful source of revenue. However, over the last couple of years, IoT has found traction in international markets and U.S. network operators are fighting over IoT business because they have realized that there are as many devices in the world that need to be connected as there are people who want to be connected.
ESChat recently introduced me to the SD7, a new IoT radio device made by Siyata Mobile in Silicon Valley. SD7 is FirstNet-Certified, certified for AT&T and Verizon networks, and T-Mobile certification is expected soon. When ESChat demonstrated the SD7 running its FirstNet-Certified PTT application, I knew I was seeing something new and different.
Certified for operation on U.S. networks and paired with the ESChat PTT application, the SD7 is able to communicate with all other components in the ESChat Interworking Function (IWF) ecosystem. This includes interoperability with LMR (RoIP, ISSI, AIS), dispatch, Computer-Aided Design (CAD), and logging recorders. After watching the video demonstration of the SD7’s capabilities while running ESChat, I realized this device may represent an inflection point in the U.S. broadband PTT landscape.
What is this IoT device that is more than an IoT device? Perhaps the best way to describe this unit is to start by comparing it to a pager on steroids! It was clear that I was seeing something truly new and different.
The SD7 is small and light and has loud audio for when using it with ESChat Push-To-Talk (PTT) services. It has a dedicated PTT button, an emergency button, a remote speaker-microphone connector, and more. (Watch the ESChat video here, read the ESChat press release here, and visit the Siyata Mobile website here.)
One reason I compare the SD7 to a pager is that with ESChat on board, it is easy to use the SD7 not only for two-way PTT services, but for paging alerts as well. This alert function is heavily used by many fire departments.
In addition to its pager-like capabilities, with ESChat onboard, the SD7 can be used as a two-way PTT system for those who might not need a full-up smartphone or who want a small, easy-to-carry voice device for PTT over broadband.
The device has a small top screen and a channel control knob on top, volume controls along one side, a PTT button (red) button, off-on switch, and a speaker-microphone connector on the side. The battery, which is hefty, is easily removable (smartphone vendors please take note) and there is a complete line of accessories including a belt-mounted cradle.
If you watch the video, you will learn how well this device can be integrated with ESChat PTT. While its screen is not large enough to display the location of other ESChat PTT users or their status, it does send out its location so others can see where an SD7 user is. The SD7 supports one-to-one, one-to-many and, of course, group PTT capabilities.
When I think about this device and its capabilities, including PTT, I can see it being used as a pager but with two-way voice. (Anyone remember SkyTel with its two-way data pager?) When the SD7 is used as a pager, those being paged can respond with PTT voice rather than data. Perhaps the next group would be personnel in the field, not necessarily a first responder but perhaps inspectors, detectives, or administrators. The SD7 would also be a good secondary device for those who are not on duty but need to stay connected and don’t want to have to answer their smartphone when out with their significant other. How about a number of SD7s riding along with FirstNet deployables, or when FEMA is sent to work a disaster? Having a cache of these primarily PTT devices would mean more people in the field could be handed an SD7 and without much in the way of training, they would be included in a group or multiple groups handling the disaster.
Another use I can see for the SD7 is for drivers of cars or campers traveling together who want a quick and easy way to communicate while on the road. And I am sure many of you will come up with other ideas as well.
I have an SD7 and I am waiting for it to be registered on a network so I can run it through its paces.
As FirstNet was being crafted, a number of us suggested that people who were to be involved in FirstNet but did not have first-hand public safety experience needed to go on a “ride-along” with law enforcement, fire responses, and EMS responses. Ideally, the ride-along would be on a Friday or Saturday night, the busiest nights for first responders.
Before FirstNet was turned on, a ride-along was intended to give a view into the world of first responders and the shortcomings of their communications when only Land Mobile Radio (LMR) was available. Today, a ride-along includes a view of the many new capabilities available to first responders using FirstNet along with LMR.
Now I suggest that anyone who has been hired by device and application vendors, FirstNet (Built with AT&T), The FirstNet Authority, and the FirstNet Authority Board of Directors arrange for rides with agencies that are using both an LMR voice system and FirstNet. I believe it is important for anyone making decisions about the network, applications, and devices see for themselves how much more effective communications are today. It is also important for them to know what the people who actually use these communications systems think about them and what they would like to see added to make their tasks even safer, easier, and more efficient.
Over the past few decades, the FCC and NTIA have done their best to handle radio spectrum matters in a fair, non-political manner. However, there have been times when the upper management of these organizations have strayed from this basic principle. As I look back at all the years I have interfaced with the FCC in particular, I have come to the conclusion that, from time to time, the FCC has favored specific types of businesses or entities while ignoring other groups. For example, I feel that the previous FCC always weighted their spectrum decisions based on the needs of broadband carriers and vendors that sell unlicensed Wi-Fi equipment into the general population. So far, this new FCC appears to be taking a broader view of the available spectrum and how it must be protected. Still, there are a number of issues, most left over from previous FCC administrations, that will potentially create challenges for several different user groups.
So far, this includes permitting unlicensed Wi-Fi 6 users (millions) to operate in the same portion of spectrum that for years has been allocated to microwave point-to-point and point to multi-point services. We have already seen what appears to be an issue with indoor Wi-Fi 6, which is not required to go through frequency coordination.
The next problem is with the the portion of T-Band TV spectrum that had been set aside in eleven major metro areas so public-safety LMR services could have more access to the spectrum in those areas. When FirstNet was approved, the bill included the requirement that public safety give back the T-Band.
As you would expect, public safety and others fought that battle until the very last minute when Congress finally realized that the value of the T-Band to public safety far outweighs the value of the money the FCC could have collected if it auctioned T-Band spectrum. The FCC division that is “repacking” TV Channels and permitting low-power TV stations to move into new locations is using an outdated FCC database. This has resulted in interference with public-safety LMR systems in many of the eleven T-Band metro areas.
Now we have an issue with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), aviation, and the C-Band, which the FCC put out to auction to be used as mid-band 5G spectrum. This decision is causing concerns of interference with airplane radio altimeters. (Will someone please teach the press how to pronounce “altimeters?”) AT&T and Verizon paid dearly for the spectrum and both have been very accommodating in working with the FCC and FAA. They have even offered to reduce transmitter power in that band to minimize the issue, and going a step farther, they have offered to not put any C-Band 5G systems near airports.
Meanwhile, a previous FCC took back 5-GHz spectrum that was set aside and beginning to be used for vehicle control and to make intersections safer. Yes, you guessed it. What was taken back was given to the Wi-Fi folks.
There are other examples of spectrum issues and I am sure there will be more going forward. Where is the FCC’s engineering bureau? In years past, the FCC administration would not take any action on spectrum issues until the FCC engineering staff weighed in. Sometimes they approved a proposal and other times they asked for, and received, tests to be run to determine one way or another if there would be spectrum issues including interference. I have not heard much, if anything, out of the FCC’s engineering staff for a while and I have to wonder why.
More issues are arising as more portions of spectrum are being reviewed for spectrum sharing. We continue to have problems with interference from devices transmitting out-of-band and devices within a band raising the noise floor. If the offending devices are unlicensed, there is no way to identify the unit causing the interference and there is no one available at the FCC’s field offices to track down the interference or have a device shut down.
“Noise-floor” interference will be much more difficult to deal with. As more and more devices (e.g., Wi-Fi 6 in the 6-GHz band) are being deployed, they are increasing the “noise-floor” in the band. Think of the noise-floor as pollution in the air we breathe. For the most part, we cannot not see it, but there are negative effects. As the noise floor in any portion of spectrum increases, the range for what receivers can hear becomes shorter. Do you, good buddy, remember the 27-MHz Citizens Band? The maximum power was five watts and a license from the FCC was required. Today, the Citizens Band has been basically abandoned by the FCC. Because of the high noise floor, it now takes 500-watt or higher transmitters to talk over the same distance as 5 watts did years ago. The noise-floor is horrendous, so the feds simply walked away from 27-MHz radio spectrum. Today the FCC acts as though this spectrum does not even exist.
I would very much like to see the resurrection of the FCC engineering group of olden days. However, the new-day engineering group would not be made up exclusively of IT folks who understand IP networks and broadband. It would include radio engineers who understand narrowband, broadband, adjacent channel, noise-floor interference, and more. Once there is a strong FCC engineering group that understands radio, the FCC administration would consult with its engineering group on every spectrum change the FCC is considering before it is passed into law.
There are a number of good people within the FCC’s engineering section. So, they either need to be listened to, or they are not the correct mix of engineers. Either or both of these issues need to be fixed sooner rather than later.
Until next week,
Andrew M. Seybold
©2022, Andrew Seybold, Inc.