Why a small-cell approach makes sense for FirstNet
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Low power. A low-power network with base stations consuming less than 60 W can be solar powered to allow extended operation without commercial power. In the last four years, I built a national meteorological network across 11 states. The network was powered primarily by solar energy, not electricity from a utility.
Base stations were installed from northern Minnesota to South Texas. The same configuration was used with minor changes in the battery size, photovoltaic panel size, azimuth and tilt, as needed. These sites operate indefinitely without utility power. Each station sends up-to-the-minute, real-time reports about battery health and power produced by the photovoltaic cells. Failing components are flagged, enabling scheduled replacement. Sizing batteries and solar panels is now sophisticated enough that power needs can be dependably and indefinitely met.
Unfortunately, base stations from existing eNodeB vendors consume too much power to utilize solar backup and can’t operate independent of the grid. Note that installing utility power at 50,000 sites at $1,500 per site would cost $75 million—and there would be no backup.
Consolidating base stations, antennas, the equipment frame, cinder blocks (for 100-mph wind ballast) solar panels and batteries puts all required elements on a pallet in the warehouse ready to be shipped. This simplifies deployment and scheduling. It is easy to ship 50,000 batteries, but it is far more difficult to schedule 10,000 electricians to install power.
Because the new network needs to survive outages, it is an obvious next step to extend emergency operations with solar and battery backup. Low-power base stations and the current state of batteries remove the need for onsite generators and fuel.
Low cost. Seven billion dollars are targeted to build the FirstNet network, but there is no published budget indicating how this money should be spent or how far it might go. Everyone agrees that a conventional network will cost more to build—perhaps more than $21 billion.
Challenges notwithstanding, it may be that the main benefit of FirstNet is simply its bulk-buying role. Can FirstNet empower thousands of jurisdictions and erode the vendor duopoly that leads to $3,500 radios?
Municipal budgets are stretched and can’t be tapped to fill the gap between $7 billion and $21 billion. There is not enough money in the FirstNet budget to build 50,000 new towers. Even if there were, the result would be a vulnerable network that is less reliable than today’s LMR networks. In contrast, a leading-edge, small-cell network would rely mostly on existing towers, municipal roof space and other public assets, extended by nearby small-cell base stations.
Standards based. Municipal budgets and public-safety readiness have long been burdened by proprietary radios that cost $3,500 and base stations that cost more than $100,000. For many rural police departments, radio replacement alone is a budget-busting exercise.
So the biggest threats to getting wireless broadband into the hands of first responders are proprietary equipment suppliers and incumbent carriers seeking to control the new network. Both would lock in unsupportable costs. The new public-safety network cannot be built on radios costing $3,500 from longtime, near-monopoly vendors and base stations that cost more than $100,000 from major telecom vendors.
The U.S. military wants to leverage the technology-advancing, cost-compressing power of the mass market for civilian handsets and other network infrastructure. Likewise, FirstNet will benefit if it can entice consumer handset manufacturers and the latest infrastructure developers to focus on first responders. And the changeover can be gradual, because new network components can integrate with the existing Project 25 fabric and can integrate current LMR networks with VoIP-based push-to-talk services.
The FirstNet budget will go far if the network leaves behind proprietary equipment and leverages consumer-market, multiband handsets that may cost as little as $500, not $3,500. For a relatively modest sum, mass-market handsets can evolve to meet public-safety standards for shock and water resistance.
Controlled by public safety, not carriers. No public-safety agency wants to cede network control to carriers. They don’t want to give control to entities making commercial decisions on coverage and uptime.
First responders know that carriers make decisions that are, for the carriers, commercially reasonable. But a carrier might consider it commercially reasonable to not provide firefighting communications to a far corner of a rural county. That’s not the public-safety mentality.
Technology advances since the 9/11 terrorist attacks offer the opportunity for a far better network—one that can survive time, weather and hackers. But this is only possible if we embrace open systems and do not make the mistake of reproducing the existing legacy carrier network—a network that cannot be economically hardened to public-safety standards.
The latest infrastructure and handsets allow a reliable, survivable network to be built within the FirstNet budget. For $7 billion, plus user fees, FirstNet can build a nationwide, small-cell LTE, military-style mesh network for broadband voice and data by leveraging existing public-safety assets—and by avoiding carriers’ legacy macro-cell networks.
Steve Kropper is a partner with Skunk Works Fund, which supports the development of wireless infrastructure to fulfill the FirstNet mission. He can be reached at email@example.com.