While We Wait for FirstNet

The FirstNet Board of Directors has been appointed and its first meeting is September 25, 2012. I am sure that it will take awhile for the directors to get organized and to review the many documents that have been submitted for their consideration by many different organizations including NPSPCAPCO, and others. While we know now that the Public Safety Nationwide Broadband Network will happen, but we are not sure of the timing. However, while we wait, agencies can have their first experiences with the benefits of LTE by contracting with commercial network operators.

The caveat is that your agency can start using LTE today, with good results, but during an emergency you may or may not be able to access the commercial network you have chosen because of network congestion and the lack of network priority for first responders. These are two of many reasons Congress was finally convinced that Public Safety needed its own broadband network, but you can still learn a lot about what LTE can do for your department and those around you, and you can find out what types of applications you will be able to run and gain some firsthand experience with the benefits of LTE broadband.

It is not necessary to equip your entire fleet with broadband services, perhaps you can start with the Lieutenants or Sergeants in a police department, Battalion Chiefs of your fire departments, or perhaps your busiest EMS units. You can begin by outfitting the notebook computers in these vehicles with a commercial wireless broadband modem, either a USB dongle (not the best choice) or vehicular-mounted LTE modem with an external antenna. You can continue to use your existing data system if you have one and use the commercial LTE network for comparison, or you can switch over to the commercial LTE network completely. Either way, you will be able to gain firsthand experience with wireless broadband and the types of things it will enable your agency to accomplish in the field.

If you purchase or lease vehicular modems that will handle multiple devices (there are some on the market already), you will be able to use them for access to a commercial network today and be fairly confident that if they have support for band 14 (the Public Safety band on 700 MHz) you will be able to simply plug in a new radio and be up and running on the Public Safety network once it is built in your area. At the APCO show in Minneapolis in August, a number of vendors were demonstrating these dual modems. One caveat here, I believe that the Public Safety Communications Research program in Boulder will end up with the task of certifying these devices for use on the Public Safety system, but I also believe that you can probably make a deal with a vendor to provide you with upgraded modems at no additional charge once the final approvals are available.

What should you expect to pay per modem, per month? That will depend on a few things. First is the number of modems you purchase. Usually, the more modems you buy, the less expensive each modem is. Second will be the deal you make with the commercial network operator. I have seen pricing as low as $38 per month for unlimited LTE for Public Safety and I have seen slightly higher prices. The network operators want your business and want to capture it now so in the future they can work with you for roaming on their network as well as non-mission-critical voice over their network. You should obtain prices from more than one network and see which will offer you the best deal with the most flexibility.

Next up is choosing the content you want to run over the wireless broadband network. For example, you could choose to broadcast the video from a dashboard camera back to the dispatch center but you don’t want to do that for every car all of the time, there is no point and not enough bandwidth. However, when a car stops a motorist for something other than a minor issue, it could send a streaming video of the incident back to the dispatch center and, if other units were responding to offer assistance, the video could be sent to the responding vehicles. You can experiment with your existing data applications, easily use some off-the-shelf applications, or contact your CAD software supplier to see if its mobile version of the application is ready for testing. If you have some talented in-house IT types, you could write your own applications and/or interfaces to your existing applications. You could also enable Internet access for your fleet, experiment with GPS location, try out on-scene report packages, try transmitting still, digital pictures of an accident, and provide update traffic routing for units on the way to an incident.

If you have fixed cameras in your city, you could choose the one nearest an incident and have that video sent, via the dispatch center, to the responding units. The first service you could try could be receiving building plans as you head for an incident, or hazardous location information. At a scene, you could place cameras to provide multiple views of the fire that could be watched by the Incident Commander and/or at the dispatch center. For EMS units, there are already a number of applications available for the transmission of medical information using smartphones and some attachments, and live video of a patient might also be helpful to the emergency room or trauma center.

While I am suggesting vehicle-mounted modems, it might also be practical to outfit some of your field resources with standard smartphones that could be tied into your system. Of course, most smartphones are not designed for the rigors of the Public Safety world, but in normal circumstances they can be very valuable for those in the field. We are already seeing a number of dispatch, parking ticket, license plate look-up, and other applications that have been built, mostly on the Android platform but some for the iPhone and even BlackBerrys. One advantage of smartphones, of course, is the fact that they are on a person not tied to a vehicle, and since they can take still pictures and videos, both of these can easily be sent to other first responders, the Incident Commander, and back to the dispatch center.

Again, commercial networks should not be relied upon for mission-critical information or dispatch, nor should you count on them being available during emergencies where network congestion around the incident could hamper first responders’ access to the commercial networks. However, I believe that gaining experience with LTE broadband services and capabilities now is important and will help you and your department to be better prepared to add LTE broadband services to your existing voice and slow-speed Land Mobile Radio systems. You notice I said “add” to your existing voice systems. The Public Safety LTE broadband network is, first and foremost, about augmenting your voice capabilities and not replacing them.

Yes, work is being done and standards are being written to implement Voice over LTE (VoLTE) and I am sure you are aware that Metro PCS is offering VoLTE today, while Verizon is not far from introducing it. However, while VoLTE is dial-up voice for phone calls, it is not one-to-many, nor is it mission-critical in nature. It certainly does not support off-network, simplex, or talk-around. If and when voice over the Public Safety broadband network comes, it will be sometime into the future. The future varies depending on whose point of view you subscribe to. There are those who believe it will be real as early as 2015 or 2016 but I am more conservative believing that it will come in three stages: non-mission-critical push-to-talk by 2015, mission-critical PTT by 2018-19, and PERHAPS off-network or simplex by 2020 or beyond. In the meantime, continue to invest in your existing LMR systems and give LTE a try on one of the commercial networks.

How do you choose which network? Make sure the one you choose provides you with the best coverage in your area—network operators’ coverage varies from market to market. Don’t expect the same level of coverage your LMR system gives you, but do test the system. One way I have found to determine the network with the best coverage is to outfit paramedics and have them report on coverage. They usually go to more locations more quickly than any of your other first responders. Every network will give you some demo units to try out. Once you have chosen the best network for you, don’t tell them you have made the decision but negotiate a price as if they are competing against at least one if not two other network operators. Remember, they all want your business and at this point you are in the driver’s seat. Work with the network operators and they will work with you—make sure you have the best possible deal you can make.

Don’t rely on it, but try it. Learn what broadband can and cannot do. Broadband should be looked upon as a new tool to make first responders safer, to assist the citizens better and faster, and to cut down on the voice traffic on your network. There is a learning curve for sure, but if you start now with commercial network operators, you should be ready when the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network comes to your county, city, or town.

Andrew Seybold


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