Who knows more about what public-safety and critical-communications users need? I think the answer has changed several times over the years, and today it is those within the public-safety community itself who best know which communications capabilities they need and which capabilities they would like to have.
Public-safety communications turned from landline to two-way radio starting in the 1920s and further matured in the 1930s. At that time, the main players in the public-safety communications arena were Link Communications and Motorola. Both companies provided radio equipment and technology during World War II, and when the war was over, they returned to the public-safety market where a number of significant advancements had been made.
The vendor community became the driving force in providing newer and better technologies for the public-safety community after World War II and into the 1970s and 1980s. I had the pleasure of working for RCA Mobile Communications Biocom, which made the first paramedic radio, General Electric Mobile Radio, and Motorola. During my time at Motorola in the LA area, several new technologies developed by Motorola were put into play in LA County. I was responsible for convincing LA County Communications Department personnel that Motorola’s new technologies would be beneficial to the public-safety community.
Changes have been coming slowly but surely since I left Motorola in the early 1980s to became an independent consultant. P25 digital Land Mobile Radio (LMR) communications systems were a major advancement during that time. However, because each vendor wanted to corner a segment of the market unimpeded by its competitors, it took APCO, the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC), and a number of other organizations more than 25 years to establish P25 interoperability standards as they exist today.
Fast forward to 2008 through 2012 when the Public Safety Alliance (PSA) and the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) were working in DC to obtain nationwide broadband spectrum for public safety. Some vendors were supportive, but the coming together of the public-safety community as a cohesive group of agencies and organizations was the driving force for what has become FirstNet.
Organizations including the PSA, PSST, NPSTC, APCO, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), and others coalesced around the concept of a National Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN). Even before FirstNet became the law of the land, the public-safety community recognized that while it controlled what it needed, the community by itself could not properly build out a nationwide broadband system. Thus it was always the intent of those of us working with Congress, the Executive Branch, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to structure a private/public partnership where public safety would provide input to network management while the actual network would to be built out by one or more entities that understood the complexities of building a greenfield communications system.
There were times when this consortium of agencies had to resolve conflicts as an entire ecosystem was being developed, but public safety was able to come away with most of what it believed it needed. The FirstNet Authority awarded the contract to build the network to AT&T and AT&T understood it would need to bring as many qualified public-safety communications professionals as possible onboard. The FirstNet Authority has continued this practice, and by filling out its staff with experienced public-safety communications people we have made more progress than any of us thought possible.
That is not to downplay the fact that NPSTC, IACP, the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and others all contributed to the knowledge base upon which FirstNet was built. In addition, The FirstNet Authority relies heavily on the Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC) that was created when FirstNet was established by law.
At this juncture, I have to say that those most responsible for the success of today’s public-safety communications systems are not necessarily members of the vendor community or others that make money from the public-safety community. Rather, I believe the public-safety community has established itself as an organization that comes together when needed and prioritizes the needs of the public-safety community over what is best for the vendor community.
Other challenges are being addressed today to help complete what many of us believe is the ultimate goal for public-safety and critical-communications systems. These include Next-Generation 9-1-1 (NG911), land mobile radio, and Wi-Fi and off-network communications. Solutions to the issues we face today need to be driven by the public-safety community and not by agencies, organizations, or lobbyists who think they know better. Since the 2012 start of FirstNet, the public-safety community has proven it knows best what it needs and what will make its mission easier and safer.
Today there are ongoing skirmishes about who has the right, the knowledge, or the clout that entitles them to make unilateral decisions about what public safety wants and needs. Companies participating in these clashes need to stand back and reassess their rationale for pushing their own views. It is vitally important that public safety take charge of its own communications destiny. It may be beneficial to have vendors and others partner in this endeavor, but at the end of the day, it is those on the front lines and who manage them who fully understand their needs and wants.
I am hopeful that some of the organizations that are blatantly self-serving will finally understand that public safety seeks what it believes is best for every agency and department in the United States. We cannot and should not repeat vendor-specific issues like those that slowed the adoption of, for example, P25. Today, the Public Safety Alliance and the Public Safety Spectrum Trust are no more. However, resources including NPSTC, The FirstNet Authority Advisory Committee, and a number of other organizations provide forums for public safety and the vendor community to work together to provide the next generation of public-safety communications
I believe the best thing that has happened for public safety in the last fifty years is that this community has come together. While not always in sync, they are willing to sit down at a table and discuss what is needed to develop solutions that can be approved and put into effect by those providing the infrastructure and devices the industry needs.
I had been hoping that by the time I became proficient with my new means of reading and writing we would have had more good news about push-to-talk on FirstNet and push-to-talk interoperability between FirstNet and land mobile radio systems.
Unfortunately, I find not much has happened in the realm of Mission-Critical Push-To-Talk (MCPTT) or LMR interoperability over the past few months. InternetWorking Function (IWF) is still among the missing and ProSe is still not a viable option for off-network communications. With all the effort coming out of PSAC, The FirstNet Authority, and FirstNet (Built with AT&T), one would expect more progress to have been made.
Other FirstNet-approved PTT vendors are integrating LMR and FirstNet using ISSI and other technologies while Mission-Critical Push-To-Talk is essentially missing in action. It is a stretch to think a push-to-talk technology such as MCPTT that must be housed within the broadband network will become a nationwide standard.
I understand the enthusiasm and investments made by many to implement MCPTT on FirstNet, but it has been more than a year since FirstNet (Built with AT&T) introduced FirstNet Push-To-Talk based on the 3GPP standard. There still is no Integrated Library System (ILS) client, and much of the FirstNet community prefers iOS over Android devices. I believe the 3GPP IWF interoperability standard will be necessary for MCPTT to provide solid interoperability yet I have not seen any examples of FirstNet and land mobile radio systems passing through location data, unit ID, and a variety of flavors of encryption.
Because MCPTT is an approved standard does not mean it is the right push-to-talk solution for a FirstNet/LMR interoperability environment. Many public-safety agencies I have talked with that are already implementing PTT over FirstNet and FirstNet-to-LMR PTT interoperability, where possible, did so because they decided they could not afford to wait for MCPTT.
Having seen very little in the way of new or improved upgrades to MCPTT while more and more federal, state, and local departments have achieved FirstNet interoperability using ISSI, I think it is time to reevaluate the entire nationwide push-to-talk strategy. It might be beneficial at this point for everyone involved to sit down and work toward another push-to-talk interoperability solution; perhaps one that is currently under development and could be implemented sooner. Not every standard is meant to be fully implemented in the public-safety community. At this point, I have to wonder whether Mission-Critical Push-To-Talk has a future. If you don’t agree, you can prove me wrong by releasing a version of MCPTT that performs as it was meant to and delivers what was promised.
I have been looking forward to returning to conference sessions and exhibits slated for August (APCO) and September (IACP, IWCE). As it turns out, my travel this year will be more limited than I thought and I will attend only the IWCE conference in Las Vegas in September. I have been invited to speak at several sessions and, as usual, I look forward to the conference and exhibits. I would also like to attend the IACP communications and technology sessions typically held the Sunday prior to the start of the conference. (This committee was headed by Chief (Ret.) Harlan McEwen for more than 37 years.) I find this a valuable daylong series of update sessions that provide a snapshot of what is happening in the communications and technology arenas of the public-safety community. IWCE sets up a bridge each year so people who are not onsite can still listen in and participate. With such availability, you can benefit greatly from these update sessions.
This issue of the Advocate will be sent out toward the end of May 2021. On June 10, 2021, the Public Safety Advocate will enter its eleventh year of publication. If you would like to delve into the history of FirstNet, you can find all of my Public Safety Advocates archived both on AllThingsFirstNet.com and AndrewSeybold.com. Over the years, my goal has been to provide relevant information to the first-responder community.
There are some interesting things going on in the public-safety community today. Every time I hear that a network other than FirstNet is pushing for compatibility or interoperability with FirstNet I cringe. How long will it take other network operators to realize they passed on their opportunity to bid on the FirstNet network back when The FirstNet Authority was developing its request for proposal. When talking with executives at different networks, the conversation I had with network executives in northern New Jersey summed up why they did not bid and are now playing catch-up. I was told out-right that their network loves to have federal subscribers but they had no interest in forming a partnership with the federal government. Yet this same company continues to try to compete with FirstNet.
The Florida legislature recently awarded a P25 contract to L3Harris to replace its existing L3Harris LMR system. Included in the legislation was a statement that the L3Harris P25 system would be interoperable with FirstNet. This was met with negative comments from another broadband provider and the provider that made the above statement.
Not only did they tell me they were not interested in a federal government partnership, they stated publicly that they did not need the spectrum that came with FirstNet. During all this time, this NJ company has been purging its public-safety professionals and shut down its 9-1-1 activities. Today, some of these people seem to have become lobbyists for companies trying to convince Congress that they know more about Next-Generation 9-1-1 than the public-safety community. It is time for folks to step aside and let public safety continue to manage the fulfilment of its needs and partner with companies and organizations that will listen to the first-responder community rather than claim they know better than public-safety professionals.
Until next week…
Andrew M. Seybold
©2021, Andrew Seybold, Inc.