Why a small-cell approach makes sense for FirstNet
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U.S. designed and owned. Security is paramount for a public-safety network. Because of the consequences from hacking of police and fire communications, the network cannot be foreign-built. The network should be designed in the U.S. by U.S.-based firms with software written in the U.S. (Foreign handsets are acceptable, because they can be vetted to ensure that they pose no threat to the infrastructure.)
Survive when isolated. The new first-responder network needs to survive if cut off from an administrative core. There can be a central subscriber dataset, but local operations need to be operational when severed. The local network must be able to operate independently in an emergency. The risk of hacking also makes centralized administration of the network risky.
Today’s carrier networks go down if severed from the core. If a carrier’s primary and backup network operation centers are disabled, there is no coverage. Public safety needs a network that continues independently, even if links beyond the community are severed. Today, police networks operate uninterrupted, even if adjacent networks go down. FirstNet’s network must maintain that standard.
Use low-cost, small-cell base stations. LTE enables multiple hops for voice and data through each network element without latency (delays). In the new network, a first-responder handset would pick up a signal from a nearby rooftop node, then hop to a base station on a tower, and then to another node that provides off-network access via wired backhaul. If any one of these network elements fail, the others often can close ranks and extend coverage.
This new network topology also lets networks be installed much faster. Once antenna sites have been picked and prepared, and backhaul links have been readied, the local network can be installed within 48 hours, even for rural communities. And base stations costing $3,000 apiece, while not exactly disposable, can be replaced easily.
Use carrier networks where advantageous, but not carrier architecture. Current carrier-network technology works fine for non-essential communications. Dropped calls and dead zones are acceptable trade-offs for low-cost consumer services from profitable carriers.
In contrast, current public-safety radio (LMR) technology was designed to be resilient and distributed to achieve always-on communications. However, LMR is unable to leverage the innovation and mass-production volumes of consumer handset and carrier infrastructure technology. Consequently, FirstNet is in a unique position to match the latest architectural benefits of LTE carrier technology to the performance strengths of LMR.
There used to be obstacles—from the cost of LTE base stations to the challenge of base-station interference—but that’s no longer true. And LTE offers security and encryption that is far tighter than what is offered by LMR technology.
As backup to the public-safety network, dual-mode handsets (carrier and FirstNet) would let police, fire and EMS roam on carrier networks. Such networks could serve as backup to cover dead spots and provide roaming when users are off the FirstNet network. This fills gaps but is not dependent on carrier networks.