Trick or treat? Next few months could influence direction of critical-communications world
It’s Halloween, a time that celebrates the unusual and surprising. Even when you can anticipate that something is going to happen, it can be difficult to predict whether it will scare you to death or result in sweet rewards that can put a smile on your face.
A similar sense of anxious expectation is surrounding the critical-communications arena, which already has experienced changes at an unprecedented pace, fueled largely by broadband innovations.
Land-mobile-radio (LMR) technology is far from dead—something radio manufacturers are quick to remind anyone who will listen—but even LMR companies have focused their innovations on the broadband world. Virtually every major LMR company has introduced an LTE device, a push-to-talk-over-cellular (PoC) strategy and/or an LMR/LTE interoperability solution during the last year, while announcements of new LMR radios and feature sets are few and far between.
A driving force behind this transformation has been FirstNet, which is being deployed and adopted much more rapidly than anyone could have expected when AT&T was awarded the nationwide contract 19 months ago. Remember, FirstNet was envisioned as a 700 MHz Band 14-only network that would be less than 20% complete at this point, and more than a few people figured that we would still be in the middle of lengthy proceedings associated with at least a couple of states pursuing opt-out alternatives.
Instead, AT&T’s decision to give FirstNet users priority across all of its spectrum bands—not just Band 14—meant that first responders could subscribe to FirstNet nationwide as soon as the opt-in/opt-out decisions were finalized at the end of 2017. A very healthy device ecosystem—a longtime concern for public safety—already is in place, tailored applications are being developed and vetted, and innovation is plentiful, with waves of new engineers working determinedly to address issues that have frustrated the critical-communications community for decades.
Most important, public-safety agencies are using FirstNet in even the most challenging environments, such as fighting wildfires in the western U.S. or recovering from Hurricanes Florence and Michael in the eastern U.S. It will be some time before we get detailed assessments in after-action reports, but the early anecdotal evidence surrounding FirstNet has been positive, and it is becoming clear that public safety increasingly believes that broadband communications are a centerpiece of response efforts, not just a “nice-to-have” service.
FirstNet certainly has changed the game for public safety, and not just for those who subscribe to the service. FirstNet’s introduction into the market has resulted in Verizon—AT&T’s chief rival—to make commitments and start new initiatives that would have unimaginable just a couple of years ago.
But the impacts of the eventful first 10 months of 2018 could pale by comparison to the promised developments we could see during the final two months of the year.
Will these developments be “tricks” or “treats”? That will depend on what happens, as well as your perspective. In addition, it may be years before we can accurately assess the upcoming evolution, in some cases. But there is little doubt that what transpires during the next several months will have a significant influence on what the critical-communications industry looks like during the upcoming decade.
Each of these items will be explored in greater detail in future articles/columns, but here is a quick preview of some key upcoming events to monitor:
FirstNet Authority changes: FirstNet has a sustainable business model for 25 years, thanks largely to the efforts of board leaders like Sue Swenson, Jeff Johnson and Kevin McGinnis, each of whom served on the original FirstNet board in 2012. Now, they are all gone, and the FirstNet board is led by Chair Ed Horowitz and Vice Chair Richard Stanek, while Ed Parkinson is organization’s interim CEO, succeeding the departed Mike Poth.
Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross is expected to announce the appointment of six other board members “soon,” according to a spokesperson at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). Whether that means later today or sometime in January—when last year’s FirstNet board appointments were announced—is anybody’s guess [Editor’s Note: We need guess no more. The announcement of new FIrstNet board appointees was made as this article was being posted].
What is clear is that the FirstNet board needs to continue its advocacy for public safety transition fully to an organization focus on operations while holding AT&T accountable to the performance terms of its contract. Hopefully, FirstNet can avoid the trap of extremist politics in either direction, as neither a FirstNet board filled with AT&T apologists nor one that is dominated by members intent on poisoning the benefits of the public-private partnership would help first responders.
Introduction of mission-critical push-to-talk (MCPTT) service: Push-to-talk-over-cellular (PoC) offerings once were resisted by many who viewed PoC as a threat to LMR technology. Today, LMR companies increasingly are viewing PoC as an augmentation to LMR, effectively expanding an LMR network’s coverage footprint and device flexibility when LTE and LMR systems are interoperable.
MCPTT is a 3GPP standard for PoC, and AT&T officials have said the technology will be available by the end of the year—it has to be offered by the end of March, under the FirstNet contract.
AT&T officials also have said that public-safety agencies will be able to choose from at least two MCPTT vendors. AT&T currently offers the carrier-integrated PoC technology from Kodiak—now owned by Motorola Solutions—and Kodiak officials have long said that an MCPTT version would be ready. Meanwhile, there is considerable industry speculation whether MCPTT from vendors like Samsung, Nokia or others could be part of the equation.
Regardless of the vendor, standards-compliant MCPTT is expected to perform very well when users are on a dedicated LTE network, and the voice quality should be better than LMR push to talk, because of the additional bandwidth resources and the ability to use higher-level codecs.
But those physics tables are turned in an off-network environment. LMR devices can transmit at more than 10 times the power level of LTE handsets, and they have large external antennas, while LTE devices have internal antennas and operate at much lower power level. As a result, development of the proximity-services (ProSe) LTE direct-mode technology has stagnated, and vendors are pursuing development of hybrid LMR solutions to meet public-safety’s need for direct-mode range.
Meanwhile, new innovations in deployable networks—from backpacks and dropkits to vehicular systems and LTE drone cell on wings—have some trying to reassess just how often first reponders actually will need to communicate off network.
The questions surrounding MCPTT are numerous. Exactly when will it be introduced on FirstNet or other providers? Will it work as promised? What vendor options will be available? How will MCPTT services be priced? Will carriers allow MCPTT offerings to interoperate with each other—something that hasn’t happened with carrier-integrated PoC? Will first-responder agencies use the MCPTT option as leverage to secure better pricing from LMR vendors? Will MCPTT offerings cause entities to think twice about significant investments in LMR?
Identity of FirstNet ‘extended primary’ users: Most associate FirstNet with providing broadband communications to its “primary” user groups—fire, EMS, law enforcement, 911 and emergency-management personnel. But FirstNet also is designed to address the broadband needs of “extended primary” entities that often provide critical support to the “primary” groups during response efforts, although they also perform non-emergency functions much of the time.
Traffic from “extended primary” FirstNet users always will be prioritized over AT&T commercial users, but “extended primary” users typically will not have preemptive access to the network in the manner that “primary” users do. However, public safety can “uplift” an “extended primary” user temporarily to have “primary” access rights in certain situations—for instance, such access can be provided to a utility that needs to clear a downed power line from a road or to a transportation entity that is helping evacuate an area during an emergency.
Most have assumed that at least some utilities, hospitals, transportation authorities and many non-public-safety government users will qualify as “extended primary” users, but a comprehensive listing has not been released yet. While FirstNet and AT&T have been fairly quiet on the matter, many believe that “extended primary” usage could be much broader than most anticipated when FirstNet was envisioned originally in 2012. Many are monitoring the situation closely, because exactly how far will the “extended primary” category extends could impact future LMR and broadband usage among valued enterprise customers.
And there are other questions: Could priority-level service be provided to so many users that it dilutes the value of FirstNet to those subscribing to the network, even with AT&T’s all-spectrum-band philosophy for FirstNet and massive capacity resources? Will critical-infrastructure entities like utilities embrace FirstNet as a primary means of internal communications, or will the lack of always-on preemptive access cause them to use FirstNet simply as an interoperability tool during response efforts?
Next-generation 911 (NG911) progress: With FirstNet in place, broadband IP technology is available to both first responders and the general public they are tasked to protect and serve. Given this, there is little question that upgrading 911 centers—the most common link between responders and the public—to an IP-based next-generation architecture is critical to U.S. public safety.
However, there are significant questions surrounding the best approach to deploying NG911 nationwide. Traditionally, 911 has been implemented at the local and state level, but it seems clear that federal-government help is needed for NG911. After all, the IP technology that drives NG911 is inherently interstate, and a new funding source is needed, particularly in states where 911 funding historically has been lacking.
Now that the much-anticipated cost study finally has been released—establishing a funding target between $9.5 billion and $12.7 billion, depending on the approach taken—meaningful conversations can be conducted about the best way to deploy NG911 and the appropriate role of the federal government in the endeavor.
Most 911 officials have advocated that the federal government provide new funding to support NG911, but the implementation would be done at the state and local levels. Whether lawmakers on Capitol Hill agree is questionable, especially after seeing the FirstNet initiative become a reality for a relatively low cost.
Meanwhile, there are significant operational and political hurdles that need to be cleared before NG911 will be available nationwide (more on those in a subsequent column), but none of these are insurmountable. In addition, there is a bipartisan interest in Congress to pass a bill addressing key infrastructure needs next year and including funding for NG911 certainly would be a logical fit.
History has shown us that a key to NG911 success probably lies with public safety presenting a united front to Congress about the need to deploy NG911, as well as the standards and approach to its implementation. Disagreement within public safety on such matters typically has led to inaction from Congress.
Policies regarding Chinese manufacturers: Most media attention has been focused on alleged cybersecurity issues associated with the use of commercial broadband equipment from China-based companies like Huawei and ZTE, but the critical-infrastructure community has its eyes on the fate of Hytera Communications.
By Nov. 16, the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) is expected to make its ruling on Hytera, which has been accused of stealing Motorola Solutions patents and building its DMR business by selling the technology in the U.S. The scope of the complaint has narrowed considerably during the past two years, so it will be interesting to see exactly what restrictions—if any—are placed on Hytera selling and maintaining equipment in the U.S.
Of course, there are other issues that deserve close attention, such as smart-cities initiatives, Internet of Things (IoT) deployments, cybersecurity challenges, public-safety broadband developments in countries outside the U.S., and the fate of critical-infrastructure airwaves in the T-Band, 4.9 GHz and 5.9 GHz spectrum bands.
While the outcomes of these topics may be difficult to predict, there it seems clear is that many of the decisions and developments that will occur during the next several months will have a significant impact in shaping the critical-communications industry for years to come.