Mission-critical services, coverage options highlighted in FirstNet Authority Roadmap update
Encouraging the development of solutions that address unique public-safety coverage solutions and enhance mission-critical voice, data and video communications are among the focus areas highlighted the recently updated FirstNet Authority Roadmap that outlines strategic technological priorities for the FirstNet system.
Last month’s release represents the first update to the Roadmap, which was created last year as a strategic document that is designed to help identify development priorities for the FirstNet system. This information is expected to help inform the FirstNet Authority board as it makes decisions about how to invest about $15 billion back into the network during the 25-year agreement with contractor AT&T.
All six of the domain areas identified in the Roadmap last year remain the same, but there have been some notable changes in the focus areas.
Updates to the FirstNet Authority Roadmap include a focus on mission-critical services that are being developed to meet the technical standards established by 3GPP. In March, AT&T announced FirstNet PTT, a voice offering that is compliant with the mission-critical-push-to-talk (MCPTT) standard.
This platform is slated to be enhanced with greater functionality that also is included in the 3GPP standard, according to Brian Hobson, senior director of the FirstNet Authority Roadmap development division.
“In the voice-communication domain, we are continuing to focus on push to talk and really trying to advance that capability, which just entered the marketplace,” Hobson said. “It’s relatively new, so there’s a lot of opportunity for us to advance that.
“One of the things we called out specifically was that we’ll be coming out—in the near term—with its inclusion of mission-critical data [MCData] and mission-critical video [MCVideo], so we are really then delivering the full suite of mission-critical services within that platform.”
Enhancing FirstNet coverage also remains a Roadmap priority, but the updated document addresses first responders’ need for “unique coverage solutions” that help address specific public-safety scenarios encountered in the field.
“In last year’s roadmap, we had a focus on the deployables that we acknowledged, and we made an investment there to try to enhance that program,” Hobson said. “Now, we kind of made a pivot to look at what are some unique coverage solutions and advancements that we can make, recognizing some of the unique capabilities of Band 14—its ability to radiate at higher power levels, so we can take advantage of high-power user equipment [HPUE].
“There are a variety of different circumstances where public safety needs more customized, ad-hoc, on-demand coverage in all of the different unique ways they operate, relative to the more consumer-driven network. Deployable equipment can be repackaged and used in a different way. Can it be used in a maritime operation or an aerial operation? Are there different form factors or platforms that could be developed to really try to tailor those for unique public-safety use cases?”
Work on these deployable solutions potentially could help FirstNet develop solutions that address one of the key issues that public-safety officials cite about LTE—the ability for the technology to be practically useful in the field when personnel are located outside the area of terrestrial network sites.
LMR users are accustomed to being able to switch to direct-mode communications in such situations. Direct-mode LTE technology exists, but it is not being offered yet in most countries, and the effective range is expected to be limited, because LTE devices typically radiate signals at a much lower power level than LMR. But Hobson said that the FirstNet Authority is exploring whether there are different technological approaches that can provide the kind of performance that first responders need when outside the footprint of the FirstNet system.
“We’ve really tried to look at what is the operational need that direct mode has been used for traditionally in the LMR community and look at what those drivers were, and then look at how you can solve for that problem in an LTE or broadband environment—and not just necessarily replicate that capability,” Hobson said.
“It’s not to say that capability—in this case, direct mode—might not be the right answer, but we’re trying to be creative by taking a step back and looking at it [from a different perspective]? Are ad-hoc solutions a way in which we could overcome the need to have to refer back to direct mode? Are there other things that could be done? We’re trying to look at it more holistically and assess what are those true critical features that are going to be absolutely needed in order to advance those capabilities.”
Another area receiving new focus in the Roadmap is an emphasis on location services of public-safety personnel to enhance situational awareness during a response effort, including mapping tools that can integrate vertical-location, or Z-axis, information both outdoors and inside buildings.
Dave Buchanan, the FirstNet Authority’s executive director of public-safety advocacy, said Roadmap updates were driven primarily by information gathered during almost 1,300 engagements with more than 32,000 people associated with the public-safety community during the past year. Historically, the FirstNet Authority team travels extensively to secure such input, but restrictions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic forced the organization to change its approach, relying significantly on virtual meetings and webinars to conduct outreach.
“Make no mistake: We like in-person meetings, and we think in-person is really valuable,” Buchanan said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “But the virtual [engagements] have provided a real opportunity for us, as well.”
Buchanan said that utilizing virtual platforms has allowed the FirstNet Authority to engage with a more diverse public-safety audience, because virtual engagements typically are more convenient for first responders to attend than taking the time necessary to travel to an in-person event. In addition, this convenience also means that the FirstNet Authority also is able to have more public-safety users present how they are using broadband than would be possible in almost all in-person scenarios.
“Virtual meetings are now legitimized as a productive and useful way to have a meeting, and I don’t think that’s ever going away,” Buchanan said. “We’re getting literally hundreds of people to join these engagements that otherwise—I don’t think—would have the time in their busy first-responder schedules to join us.
“I like to think that we made a pitcher of lemonade out of the lemons we were handed on these travel restrictions by bringing to life these virtual meetings and using these webinars to our advantage. These busy first responders that otherwise wouldn’t have time to join us now have time to join us for these virtual meeting.”
Last year, the FirstNet Authority board announced its investment plans during its December open meeting after the RoadMap was unveiled in August. The FirstNet Authority board has not yet indicated when it plans to announce its next round of investment decisions, but board members are scheduled to conduct an open meeting again this year in December.