Using the FirstNet Delay Effectively

Fri Dec 16 10:41:32 2016

It appears that the FirstNet RFP Partner winner will not be made public until the court has acted. If there is a follow-on appeal it will take even longer, but for planning purposes I think perhaps the next date we should look at is mid-March to the first of April. During this extra time, which none of us wanted, FirstNet and the states can make more progress on several items.

It is evident from committee and board of director’s meetings that FirstNet is moving forward with its plans. You have to be impressed by the work being done in the office of the CTO, other groups, and, of course, the Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC). Some of the slides from their meetings in Sacramento, California, are up on the FirstNet.gov site and more will follow. Much of the committee and board sessions were held in private where, I am sure, those who had something to say about the delays had an opportunity to share additional facts with the board. The only word we received was that FirstNet is still operating under a gag order so would not be discussing the matter further. I have to give credit to the entire FirstNet team. During this process, there were no leaks as far as I know and only rumors that did not come from inside. I am certain the balance of the waiting period will be the same.

FirstNet is not standing around waiting and the states should not be either. This delay may, in fact, prove to be of benefit to states that have not prepared themselves with facts and ideas from other potential vendors that might want to be considered if a state decides to opt out. I think it is the duty of each and every state to have at least some idea of what it would take for it to opt out of the FirstNet system build and go it on their own. I like the approach Arizona has taken to basically duplicate what it gave to FirstNet, but then California issued an RFI and might receive additional responses from companies that may not have been able to bid on the entire project but might offer a unique or different approach.

It would be ideal if when FirstNet and its Partner come to visit, those in the state responsible for making recommendations to the governor have some in-house knowledge of what it would cost the state to duplicate or exceed what FirstNet and its Partner are proposing. This would also assist in negotiations with FirstNet and its Partner for a final contract. I still believe a state should take the opt-in approach but at the same time ensure the terms of the contract give both state and local entities a say in how the network build-out is expanded over time. The state should also make FirstNet and its Partner aware of any coverage issues they may not be aware of. This might also be accomplished by what a member of the FirstNet staff is calling “Opt-In Plus” where the state champions the added coverage working directly with the winning RFP Partner.

It is vitally important for those in the states making recommendations to the governor, who has to make the final decision, make him or her cognizant of two very important factors:

1) This network is not about creating a new-found revenue source for the state. It is my understanding and others’ that any funds collected for use of the network, regardless of whether they come from the Public Safety community or secondary users, can only be allocated for the state’s portion of the FirstNet nationwide network. The rest must be turned over to FirstNet to assist in the nationwide effort.
2) If the state chooses to opt out or opt in, there has to be a realization that the network that will be built out in the state will not simply show up overnight. Commercial broadband networks were not built out in short periods of time and this one won’t be either. If you look back at the early days of the LTE broadband evolution you will find press release after press release from every LTE network operator stating that as of that date it now had 30 cities served or covers 50 million of the U.S. population. More and more releases followed and if you tracked them you could easily see exactly how much was built year over year and you might be surprised at how long it took to get to where we are now.

The first point, the money, is one that may have been misrepresented by those attempting to influence a state’s decision to opt in or opt out. The law and facts speak for themselves. It was Congress and NOT FirstNet that made the rules. Congress is made up of representatives from each state who wanted each state to realize the benefits of this much-needed network but they knew it would take the sum of the whole to make it a reality. It is critical that this remain a nationwide network and not simply a series of statewide networks that are somehow stitched together to resemble one. It was not intended to affect states’ bottom lines.

As mentioned, my team has dug into the issue of which states can support the network and which states cannot and then dug much deeper inside the states to verify our findings. Some states we determined cannot support the network on a standalone basis will surprise you because a couple of them are larger states with some fair-sized population centers.

Next, the FirstNet/Partner network is supposed to make use of LTE band 14 in the 700-MHz range for the entire network. However, it should be understood that this is the end goal, not the goal on day one of the build. Instead, I believe each state will be offered the ability to start operating as though it were on band 14 using commercial bands. As band 14 is deployed, more and more of the state’s first responders will migrate over to FirstNet’s spectrum. It should also be realized that it is advantageous to the Partner to build out the network quickly, at least in areas where use of the spectrum for secondary customers is needed. The FirstNet Partner will be investing $billions and income won’t start coming in until it has a critical mass of the network in place. FirstNet and its Partner and the states have a common goal of having the network up and running as quickly as possible.

There is yet another facet to this scenario. When FirstNet was proposed and even after it was created in 2012, LTE systems in the 700-MHz band were almost exclusively for AT&T and Verizon, and most of the smaller operators. But T-Mobile and Sprint were using different portions of the spectrum. Today, with LTE advanced features, devices move freely from band to band. When a lot of data is needed, the bands are sometimes combined in order to provide for more capacity and/or faster data speeds. The day of LTE being a single-network technology are gone forever.

During the course of this 25-year contract, I am willing to bet that Public Safety users of the FirstNet network will operate not only on band 14 but also on most if not all of the other bands in the United States on which LTE has been deployed. The combination of two or more bands to increase capacity or speed when needed is called “carrier aggregation” and it is being practiced all over the world today. It is possible, today, to build out a broadband “system” that encompasses multiple portions of the spectrum on an as-needed basis, yet when Public Safety needs pre-emptive priority for an incident, it could automatically be routed back to band 14 for service.

Those within the Public Safety community whose primary Land Mobile Radio (LMR) network is a trunked radio system are actually doing the same thing. The radio sits on a command or control channel until a call is initiated and then it is automatically switched, along with a group of other radios, to another channel where the conversation is held and completed, and then the system reverts back to the control channel. There are some variations of this, but it is basically the same principle with LTE. In reality, although most people don’t realize it, unless your voice call is being made on voice over LTE or VoIP, your voice call is on a totally different network from your data. Your voice calls are automatically routed over 2G and 3G networks (until 2G and 3G disappear). This is all seamless to you and the future FirstNet network or SYSTEM will also be seamless to all those who make use of it.

That was a long way around for saying that it is not a bad idea if FirstNet and its Partner offer to start a state on non-FirstNet spectrum and move it to FirstNet over time as the network is completed. Today, many Public Safety agencies are using commercial LTE networks and, yes, there are times when the network is busied out. However, as band 14 becomes available, busied-out periods will diminish and then disappear. Only five or ten years from now I don’t believe all of FirstNet’s traffic will be handled on band 14 but it won’t make any difference and no one will notice.

There is one caveat here. Nothing I have discussed solves the issue of off-network communications (simplex, talk-around, peer-to-peer, or whatever). So far, LTE standards for being able to talk unit to unit without the network (even when in range of the network) cannot begin to fulfill the needs of the Public Safety community for off-network, one-to-one and one-to-many voice communications. LTE off-network is designed more for a group sitting around a conference table to be able to share files and videos without being on the network. It is not designed to provide street to a sub-basement communications. There may be some combination LTE and LMR devices that might be the best way to handle off-network communications in the future. Don’t let anyone take your LMR away simply because FirstNet has come to town!

To me, the delay is maddening and totally unnecessary. Public Safety has waited long enough for this network. However, a little more time spent wisely may turn out to be beneficial for FirstNet, Public Safety, the states, and perhaps even the winning bidder once it is finally awarded the contract.

Andrew M. Seybold

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