AT&T unveils FirstNet innovations, including HPUE, vertical location, deployable offerings
FirstNet subscribers now can access new technological capabilities that are designed to improve terrestrial LTE coverage, locate first responders, let agencies address coverage gaps quicker during incidents and enable interoperability between FirstNet PTT and LMR users, FirstNet contractor AT&T announced.
Key FirstNet innovations unveiled yesterday as being available for public-safety use are:
- MegaRange, the FirstNet brand for its high-power user equipment (HPUE) that is being provided initially by Assured Wireless and Airgain;
- Z-Axis vertical-location information that is designed to help locate and track first responders using NextNav’s technological platform and initially displayed using the Intrepid Response application;
- Compact Rapid Deployable (CRD) solution from Rescue 42 that gives public safety the ability and control to bring the FirstNet network with them during a response in an easy-to-deploy package; and
- LMR interoperability for FirstNet PTT, the FirstNet offering of 3GPP-standard mission-critical push to talk (MCPTT), which has received positive reviews for its performance but very little adoption to date, largely because FirstNet PTT users were unable to with users on LMR networks.
Although each of these announcements are significant individually by taking significant steps to address known gaps in the FirstNet service, they represent only initial advancements on AT&T technological roadmap to support FirstNet subscribers, according to Scott Agnew, AT&T’s assistant vice president for FirstNet products.
“This is where a lot of innovation begins,” Agnew said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “The first three years [of AT&T’s contract with the FirstNet Authority] were really about foundational steps, to get the core components right … Get the foundation right. Get the functionality right. Get the user experience right.
“Now, it’s about refining that application ecosystem and do what we promised to do for public safety. This is exciting, and there’s more to come. I think the next couple of years will be really exciting.”
FirstNet Authority CEO Ed Parkinson echoed this sentiment.
“It is exciting to see the FirstNet marketplace continue to flourish and meet the unique needs of public safety,” Parkinson said in a prepared statement. “These new mission-ready features are delivering lifesaving capabilities into the hands of first responders. The FirstNet Authority will continue to work with our public-safety community to innovate and advance their network.”
Adoption of FirstNet has been driven significantly by AT&T’s effective coverage, according to sources within the public-safety and wireless communities. This metric has been enhanced through significant cell-site deployments driven by the FirstNet initiative and is expected to be bolstered through the MegaRange offering, which leverages the HPUE standard to increase the effective coverage at the cell edge by 62% to 100% by utilizing device power levels that exclusive to the 700 MHz Band 14 spectrum licensed to the FirstNet Authority, according to AT&T.
Agnew emphasized that MegaRange does not increase downlink coverage of signals from the carrier’s cell sites, but it does bolster the ability of end-user devices—currently LTE routers, often located in vehicles—to have enough power for its uplink signals to reach the cell site. This makes a significant difference in the user experience at the cell edge when using normal LTE devices, which emit signals at 0.2 watts as opposed to the 1.2 watts that MegaRange can use, he said
“[With normal LTE devices at the cell edge or just beyond] you’ve going to have the perception that you don’t have coverage,” Agnew said. “You do have coverage; you just don’t have usable coverage, because the connectivity isn’t there. What this does is it enhances that coverage at the edge, so you’re going to experience the same throughput and capacity you would see, if you were closer to the cell tower. So, by definition, you do get more usable coverage; thus, your perception is that there’s more coverage.
“I want to make it clear: we don’t change physics. It doesn’t change the physics regarding how far a cell tower covers; it just makes the [coverage] circle from the tower more usable.”
MegaRange certainly is expected to be an attractive service to users that work in rural locations or in maritime environments, where coverage can be challenging, but it also can be valuable in other scenarios, according to Agnew.
“We also see an improvement in in-building [coverage] and in between buildings, as well as in garages,” he said. “So, for the urban customers, they’re also going to see improvement.
“Across the board, if you ask, ‘Who is your ideal customer for MegaRange?’ the answer is anybody looking to enhance their connectivity and throughput.”
MegaRange currently is available only to FirstNet users that use the Assured Wireless AW12 HPUE modem or the AirgainConnect AC-HPUE antenna-modem that integrates the Assured Wireless chip into an efficient antenna form factor. But other equipment providers could leverage MegaRange in the future, Agnew said.
“At the end of the day, I’m of the opinion that, as we see this technology become adopted—and we’re already seeing a huge demand for it—we’re going to see a lot of the equipment providers build this technology in,” Agnew said.
FirstNet subscribers can leverage MegaRange by purchasing the Assured Wireless or Airgain solution and coordinating the service with their AT&T representative, Agnew said. There is no additional service charge for FirstNet subscribers using the MegaRange capability, he said.
Another coverage-oriented solution announced yesterday is the Compact Rapid Deployable (CRD) solution, which is designed to be an alternative to FirstNet deployables—a free service to FirstNet subscribers, but one that can take hours to arrive at an incident scene—and the AT&T Remote Mobility Zone, which is “relatively expensive” and is too large to provide LTE coverage in some scenarios, Agnew said.
“With the CRD, we decided to design a much lower cost device—it’s about a third of the cost of the AT&T Remote Mobility Zone—with low operating cost, because you can bring your own satellite service, and you basically have Band 14 in a box that you can bring anywhere,” Agnew said.
“We see this as a complement to the 76 deployables in our Response Operations Group, so customers can place coverage where they see fit.”
Available immediately, the CRD unit is provided by Rescue 42 and costs $69,995, according to Rescue 42 CEO Tim O’Connell. To get more information about the CRD offering, listen to this IWCE’s Urgent Communications podcast with O’Connell about the deployable solution.
One of the most significant announcements is the Z-Axis location offering, which leverages NextNav’s sensor-based vertical-location technology to determine the vertical location of a first responder that is accurate within 3 meters 94% of the time, based on testing conducted for the FCC.
NextNav’s solution has been deployed in AT&T’s top 52 commercial market areas (NextNav references more than 100 markets covered; a NextNav spokesperson noted that AT&T and NextNav agree on the areas covered but denote markets differently).
Determining the location of first responders during emergency responses has long been one of the most difficult technological challenges for the public-safety community, particularly when personnel are located within high-rise buildings. Although the NextNav solution has not been deployed throughout the United States, the system already provides information for most of most obvious use cases, according to Agnew.
“I want to be clear about this: 90% of all buildings that are three stories or higher are covered in the U.S. [by NextNav],” he said.
NextNav provides the in-building vertical location, this information initially will be displayed only through the Intrepid Response application platform, which FirstNet users can purchase for $5 per month, Agnew said. FirstNet subscribers also can take advantage of a limited-time offer for Intrepid Response. As with many of the innovations, Agnew indicated that he believes the ecosystem supporting Z-axis location information will evolve notably in the future.
“This is the first generation of this solution. 3D mapping enhancements will come,” Agnew said. “Mapping of the buildings needs to be worked on, but this gives first responders a point about where they are—it gives them information that they’ve never had before.”
IWCE’s Urgent Communications will have additional information about NextNav’s development of the Z-axis location capability and its potential impact on public safety in a separate story.
In March 2020, AT&T announced the availability of FirstNet PTT, the FirstNet push-to-talk offering based on the 3GPP’s mission-critical-push-to-talk (MCPTT) standard. Users that tested FirstNet PTT applauded the performance and voice clarity of FirstNet PTT, but the service also had some shortcomings at launch that many cited as the reason for lackluster adoption in the marketplace: FirstNet PTT was available only on one device, and users of the push-to-talk offering could not talk to personnel using LMR.
Agnew said FirstNet PTT now is available to users on 11 devices from vendors like Samsung, Kyocera and Sonim, although no devices using the iOS operating system have been approved yet for the service.
Perhaps more importantly, FirstNet PTT users are able to interoperate with LMR users via the Cubic Vocality that uses radio-over-IP (RoIP) technology to enable interoperability across disparate communications systems. The Vocality gateway supports interoperable push-to-talk communications with all LMR technologies, including P25, DMR, NXDN and analog narrowband systems, according to AT&T officials.
“This one does have an up charge—there is a significant cost for management,” Agnew said. “So, what the user would have to do is get the RoIP gateway and they would have to pay a $5 per line charge [each month].”
Jason Porter, AT&T’s senior vice president for the FirstNet Program, said the introduction of such new public-safety innovations distinguishes FirstNet from other commercial broadband services.
“First responders are the heart of FirstNet, and it is their input that is shaping the new tools and technologies on their network, today and for decades to come,” Porter said in a prepared statement.
“These innovative mission-driven solutions are equipping first responders with better situational awareness—whether conducting a search and rescue mission in a remote area or on the upper floors of a burning building—all while helping to ensure a seamless, interoperable connection. These are just a few of the ways that FirstNet—public safety’s network—stands above commercial offerings.”