MINNEAPOLIS — Commercial wireless carriers — including the four nationwide service providers in the U.S. — are willing to partner in the buildout of a nationwide public-safety LTE network for first responders but believe the system should focus solely on providing broadband data for emergency response rather than providing a wider range of capabilities that have been discussed this year.

Commercial carriers can provide valuable infrastructure and LTE expertise that can greatly accelerate the deployment of the proposed public-safety network, but they do not want the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) to build a network that duplicates the carriers' service offerings to the private sector, said Don Brittingham, Verizon's vice president of national-security and public-safety policy.

"I've heard a lot of discussion in the last six months about other things this network could do, besides serving first responders," Brittingham said yesterday during the first conference session at the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) show. "Although that may be true, certainly I would hope that FirstNet first addresses what the needs are for law enforcement, the fire services, for EMS and for those first responders that need effective communications.

"We've come an awfully long way to get to this point to sort of mortgage the home right from the start and design the network for other purposes. So, we think they ought to start with Job 1, which is making sure there is an effective network for first responders."

One example of this dedication to first responders should be reflected in the system core, which should feature physical redundancy but perform as a virtual single entity throughout the U.S., all carrier representatives said. While the spectrum and radio-access-network (RAN) assets can be shared with commercial entities where practical, FirstNet's LTE core should be used to serve only first-responder transmissions, Brittingham said.

"If FirstNet were to determine that it has excess spectrum in a given market, which it very likely will in a lot of lower-density markets, and it can share it with a commercial provider, that's great," he said. "But, in our view, if those arrangements are established, there needs to be a clear separation between the first-responder traffic and the commercial traffic. In our view, commercial traffic should go to a commercial port operated by a carrier.

"One of the primary reasons given why public safety needed a separate network and couldn't use commercial networks is that they need priority, including pre-emption, if necessary. Mixing traffic in the same core in what essentially would be a commercial network really is going in the wrong direction."

Utilities often mentioned as a potential sector partner in the nationwide public-safety LTE network. While there are occasions when this may be appropriate, Brittingham said Verizon does not support the notion of such critical-infrastructure enterprises using the public-safety network on a regular basis.

"As critical as [utilities] are, I don't view them to be a first responder under the primary definition of the statute," Brittingham said. "Clearly, they are an important partner of public safety and part of the response effort — depending on the emergency, they may be extremely critical, moreso than some others. But I still view them to be a secondary use under the definition that Congress set.

"If you're talking all of these types of users and application homing on the FirstNet core all of the time, it doesn't take long before you look at it and say, 'That kind of looks like a commercial network.' There may be some yet-to-be-named FirstNet board members who say, 'Maybe we have to do that for financial reasons.' But I think it's a slippery slope once you do that before it becomes a full-blown commercial network, with all of the obvious risks that [public-safety representatives] found to be present in the current commercial networks not giving priority to public safety."

Public-safety officials also need to recognize that the LTE network will not be able to be able to serve all of the communications needs for emergency responders, particularly during the early years after deployment, according Stacey Black of AT&T Public Safety Solutions.

"LTE is not going to replace mission-critical voice," Black said. "You need to plan on LTE to be used in another way besides thinking of it as a panacea that's going to put one device in your hand that's going to do everything. It's just not.You need to be thinking of LTE broadband as a way to reduce voice traffic on your existing LMR systems. Routine dispatches, DMV and license-plate queries can all be done via mobile-data terminals.

"But mission-critical push to talk requires direct, unit-to-unit communications without a cell site being deployed and virtually zero latency when the push-to-talk button is pressed. LTE is not designed for this application nor are the devices — it's going to require years of standards work and device development."

Black also cautioned first-response agencies to avoid strategies that could overload a particular cell sector in a network, such as having all patrol units boot up their systems at the same time from a single parking lot to using the network to routinely stream high-definition video from fixed surveillance sites — a practice that could "bring a network to its knees" if not planned properly.

Under a law passed by Congress in February, $7 billion in funding is earmarked to help fund the public-safety LTE network. Many public-safety officials are accustomed to all sites on mission-critical LMR networks being hardened with long-term backup power and built to withstand extreme environmental conditions, but that may not practical financially for the public-safety LTE network, Black said.

Instead, Black suggested that network designers limit expensive hardening approaches to only the most critical sites on the network, with other sites having backup power that will support a day's operation without access to the power grid.

"This is important to public safety for this initiative, because hardening can increase the cost of a cell site by 40% or 50%, and it's going to be an important factor in trying to spread that $7 billion as far as it possibly can," Black said. "If you want to harden every cell site and facility that FirstNet, it's going to cost a lot more than $7 billion to do it."

Other panelists during the session were Eric Hagerson of T-Mobile, Richard Engleman of Sprint, and Justin Brewster of Pioneer Cellular Cooperative, each of whom echoed his company's support for the public-safety broadband network and willingness to be a private partner in the initiative.

Although not as large as Tier 1 carriers, smaller regional carriers such as Pioneer can be important partners in the buildout of a nationwide public-safety network, because they are used to partnering with larger carriers on roaming agreements, Brewster said. In addition, Tier 2 and 3 carriers can provide infrastructure and coverage in rural areas that first responders must serve but Tier 1 operators do not find economically appealing.

But one aspect of the proposed LTE buildout — particularly in rural areas — that needs to be bolstered is backhaul, Brewster said.

"A huge challenge for us, in the rural area, has been backhaul," he said. "With LTE, you're able to provide a huge amount of bandwidth to the end-user device. But that bandwidth all has to come back to a central point somehow, and that takes a lot of backhaul that — in rural areas — does not exist today."

Related Stories