Breaking Down the FirstNet Authority Road Map
By Andrew Seybold
Tuesday, November 17, 2020 | Comments
Welcome to November 2020. The election is finally behind us, COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc in the United States, and the number of wildfires, major storms, and hurricanes continue to make our first responders’ work even more essential. When FirstNet was created in February of 2012, it was a result of the public-safety community having banded together across disciplines. The Public Safety Alliance (PSA) sought and received support from a variety of organizations including governors, mayors and most LMR venders.

In some sense, the law was quite optimistic when it came to funding this new quasi-government authority. The initial $7 billion was to come from future spectrum auctions; not from the U.S. Treasury. The theory was that the network would be built by a private company in a public/private partnership using the $7 billion raised by the auctions. The incentive for the private company to bid on the network was that it would gain secondary access to Band 14 spectrum for commercial use. The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet Authority) was to pay the private company as it was deploying the network and milestones were to be completed over a 60-month (five-year) timeline.

Once the network was generating revenue, a portion of that revenue was to be returned to the FirstNet Authority. There are two purposes for these funds. First is to ensure the Authority remains a self-funded entity that does not rely on funds from the U.S. Treasury. The second is to build reserves to reinvest into the network or other undertakings that need funding to ensure the FirstNet network remains up-to-date and that new technologies can be evaluated as they come to market and funded by the FirstNet Authority if deemed appropriate.

As reported in the Public Safety Advocate, the first set of FirstNet Authority-approved investments back into the network included funds to upgrade the FirstNet core (brains of the network) to be able to handle 4G LTE as well as the new 5G technologies being deployed by AT&T. Authorized FirstNet, built with AT&T, customers will be able to use both technologies going forward. To make intelligent decisions about what needs to be funded as money becomes available, the FirstNet Authority uses its existing field resources and discusses with the public-safety community what it would like to see in the way of network or other improvements that would be of value.

The FirstNet Authority road map is a compilation of input from the first-responder community, joint discussions with the FirstNet Authority and FirstNet built with AT&T, and others. It has been created by members of the FirstNet Authority’s staff, submitted to the FirstNet Authority Board of Directors, and approved. Funds will be allocated to one or more of the road map objectives as they become available.

“The FirstNet Authority Roadmap is designed to guide the growth, evolution, and advancement of FirstNet,” the FirstNet Authority said in a press release. “Developed with input from public safety, industry, government and our network contractor, AT&T, the road map provides a view of public safety’s operational needs and technology trends for mobile broadband communications over the next five years.”

This version of the road map is structured around six domains: core, coverage, situational awareness, voice communications, secure information exchange and user experience. The report describes these six domains and discusses in detail the role each domain plays in the overall nationwide public-safety broadband network (NPSBN), the public-safety community’s “take” on each domain and road map recommendations. The current version of the road map is a must-read for anyone currently using FirstNet or trying to decide whether they want to join the FirstNet community.

Each of the six domain sections starts with a vision statement and a domain overview, which is a great way to make sure you are up-to-date with each topic. This is followed by a set of priorities.

Core Domain
The road map priorities for the FirstNet core are:
• Generational updates: Evolve the core and radio access network consistent with Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) generational upgrades
• Priority and pre-emption, including uplift on 5G: Advance quality of service and priority and pre-emption (QPP) implementation in the network with new standards-based systems and features available in 5G.
• Mission-critical services platform and enablers on 5G: Implement standards-based systems and features providing mission-critical services, such as mission-critical push to talk (MCPTT), mission-critical video (MCVideo), and mission-critical data (MCData) on 5G.
• Network security on 5G: Implement on standards-based systems and features providing cybersecurity to public-safety users on 5G in support of the network security requirements.

Following each set of priorities is an explanation of what makes up the domain. For example, when discussing the core, we learn it is the evolved packet core (EPC) as defined by the 3GPP standards body, and it provides control and switching of data for the FirstNet LTE network including authentications, session and mobility management, network security and QPP. Then it describes the investment as an upgrade to EPC capabilities to provide both FirstNet LTE and 5G functionality.

Coverage Domain
The coverage vision statement is concise: “The FirstNet Authority envisions the FirstNet network will be available to public safety personnel when and where they need it most.” The public-safety community’s take discusses the need for transparency concerning where coverage does and does not exist and public safety’s desire for a say in where coverage needs to be expanded. The public-safety takes also touches on reliable fixed coverage, temporary and unique public-safety coverage and network reliability and hardening.

The road map priorities for coverage include three areas:
• Outdoor coverage, especially band 14 (public-safety spectrum)
• Reliable in-building coverage in hard-to-reach locations and the desire to advocate changes in policies, codes and standards to facilitate in-building coverage
• Unique coverage solutions advancement to address and support unique coverage solutions that enable public safety to rapidly provide coverage in a variety of outage scenarios

This domain is probably the most important for those not using FirstNet. From what I have observed, the issue of coverage between FirstNet and other broadband networks is the prime decision point for those considering joining FirstNet. As stated before, FirstNet, built with AT&T, is well ahead of the 60-month build-out requirements put in place by the FirstNet Authority. The move to 5G was not mandated, but it will happen thanks to AT&T and its commitment to public safety as demonstrated by its continuing addition to FirstNet coverage capabilities.

Situational Awareness Domain
Here again the vision statement sets up the goals: “The FirstNet Authority envisions real-time access, collection and distribution of information concerning personnel, threats, hazards and conditions in a manner tailored to public-safety operations.”

Two priorities are identified in this section and both need to be addressed soon. Unfortunately, the solutions are not 100% under the public-safety community’s control. In some cases, the goals have not been reached because, for example, the FCC has not yet tightened its location requirements. This is also an area where the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and its Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR) division are spending a great deal of time as are vendors that want to solve both issues sooner rather than later. It is interesting that this section’s goals apply not only for our public-safety personnel but are also needed to locate citizens who may be trapped in a structure or elsewhere.

The two priorities are:
• Provide for personnel location: Promote technology solutions that result in accurate locations of first responders and display that information through effective mapping and visualization.
• Location services integration: Promote integration of X-, Y-, and Z-axis data with 3D mapping solutions and public safety’s existing technology platforms.

Until recently, location determination has been based on a 2D model while what is really needed is 3D location or as the public-safety community puts it, “to the floor and to the door.” This is perhaps the most significant issue that needs to be resolved. Fortunately, a number of companies are working toward solutions and with the assistance of federal government personnel who are funding the research, new solutions will be coming to FirstNet in a relativity short period of time.

Voice Communications Domain
The vision: “The FirstNet Authority envisions a nationwide network that provides high-quality, reliable voice communications leveraging mission-critical technologies to ensure the most advanced feature set is available for first responders.”

I happen to disagree in this area and believe the authority has backed itself into a corner. Its domain overview starts with: “Voice communications continues to be the fundamental form of public-safety communications. In the current market, public-safety agencies continue to rely on LMR for critical communications while augmenting voice communications with LTE. A 3GPP-compliant MCPTT offering is a requirement of the FirstNet Authority’s contract with AT&T, and AT&T launched the initial introduction of FirstNet Push-To-Talk (FirstNet PTT) in March 2020. The coexistence of FirstNet PTT and LMR will provide for integrated voice capabilities in the near term.”

The following is priorities for voice communications:
• Operationalize FirstNet PTT: Work with public safety to assist in operationalizing the FirstNet PTT solution by educating on relevant use cases and supporting efforts to establish relevant nationwide governance and policies.
• Active Role in Standards: Continue to play an active role in emerging 3GPP and other relevant standards development focused on MCPTT, MCVideo, and MCData, as well as dispatch advancement.
• Critical Features: Advocate for continued implementation of critical MCX features such as device-to-device communications, LMR-LTE interconnection and dispatch capabilities based on public-safety operational needs.

Because mission-critical push-to-talk (MCPTT) is a 3GPP standard does not mean it will be the best PTT solution. This is the first application-layer standard to come out of the 3GPP, and I don’t believe we have enough input from the public-safety community to say, “It is the 3GPP standard; therefore, we must support it.”

At the moment, MCPTT is far behind the curve when it comes to devices and operating systems supported, and it lacks integration with all the various LMR systems. There are at least seven FirstNet-approved PTT applications and only one claims to meet the 3GPP MCPTT standard. Yet other options for PTT do provide access to almost all the devices on FirstNet, and most have a good track record for integrating with existing LMR systems.

This leads me to ask how, then, the FirstNet Authority and/or FirstNet, built with AT&T will reconcile the PTT interoperability issue and how long will it take? How will they convince thousands of PTT-over-FirstNet users and users that have chosen other PTT applications to switch to the 3GPP standard, how long will this take and can either FirstNet organization decree it has to happen?

Which leads me to another reality. Some agencies have found they need to subscribe to two broadband networks for the coverage they want/need. Today, over-the-top (OTT) PTT applications work on multiple networks but, by definition, MCPTT systems require the server to be located within the network. This will certainly make it more difficult to accommodate cross-network PTT.

In discussions with several vendors, I have learned work is underway to provide inter-PTT application interoperability. It is unknown what delays might be incurred if the solution is cloud-based, and how features such as talkgroups will be accommodated. Yet, some think it is doable, which leads me back to my original question. Because it is a 3GPP standard, is it the only PTT application suitable for the public-safety community?

Finally, I part with the FirstNet Authority’s view as set forth in its statement about off-network device-to-device communications, simplex, talkaround or whatever you want to call it. So far, the 3GPP has been touting proximity services (ProSe) for LTE off-network communications. I will tell you once again, today two people can communicate farther by yelling at each other than ProSe can communicate. The 3GPP answer seems to be to use a third device as a relay. I contend that this is not a practical solution during major incidents where resources are constantly being moved around.

I recently had discussions with vendors about how they meet or do not meet MCPTT criteria called key performance indications (KPIs). According to these discussions, the two most important KPIs concern delay times in setting up a PTT call and hearing a PTT call. I would like to see a chart comparing these times with analog FM PTT, Project 25 (P25) and P25 trunking times, and then cross-application times and delays. One may exist, but I have not found it.

Finally, I would like to see a plan for how we will transition from where we are today to where public safety needs to be tomorrow: To be able to hold PTT sessions with anyone on the FirstNet network and, hopefully, with public-safety users on other networks as well as their own local LMR networks.

Secure Information Exchange Domain
You certainly cannot argue with the vision for this section: “The FirstNet Authority envisions secure, reliable and easy-to-use access to and sharing of critical information across a variety of sources.”

However, like the PTT section, this will take some doing to be fully implemented. Currently, many agencies are using applications they are familiar with and databases don’t always align with others. In reality, the issue starts in the world of 9-1-1 and dispatch since most CAD systems are not capable of sharing their data with other vendors’ CAD systems.

The priorities — database integration and application integration — are good. There are also a number of issues with this section including the lack of funds, but there seems to be a sense in the public-safety community that the FirstNet Authority can play a key role in these areas by spurring coordination activities.

User Experience Domain
The vision: “The FirstNet Authority envisions a user experience driven by public-safety operational needs that enables users to stay focused on their primary mission.” Road map priorities include mission-enabling applications and mission-capable devices. The key technologies listed include augmented/virtual reality (A/VR) and hands-free interfaces.

This is also a domain of significant interest to public safety. Many who live and breathe communications in one form or another tend to become carried away with new technologies that have more bells and whistles and want to include extras that end up making the communications experience more complicated instead easier. I keep reminding myself and others that those on the frontlines don’t give a damn about anything more than doing their job and being able to communicate quickly and easily. The more we throw at them, the more confusion we introduce into what should be simply one more tool for them to use.

The hands-free portion of this domain will make first responders’ lives easier if the technologists make it easy to use. Heads-up displays, voice commands and different visual views of an incident will assist first responders in the field. However, when it comes to voice, we learned some hard lessons many years ago when voice-operated switching (VOX) became popular. Some of the first VOX devices used by public safety were activated every time the device heard a voice. Often, the resultant radio traffic was not a message at all, only a few choice words when a firefighter stumbled and fell. Today these devices are 1,000% better, but they must be activated only when needed, not by incidental comments.

Here again, PSCR and the FirstNet Authority have spent a great deal of time and effort researching and working with vendors to develop solutions. As a result, there have been demonstrations of some really good solutions to both visual awareness and voice activation.

The final pages of the road map are an addendum that takes a deep dive into the road map research by presenting more detail on the hows and whys of what is included in the report, and providing some examples of how developments come about.

Again, I believe anyone interested in public safety and FirstNet should read this report, at least the beginning and the domains that are most applicable to you and your agency or organization. Be sure to spend some time in the last section as well since it reinforces how much research has gone into this document. To those at the FirstNet Authority who worked so diligently putting this together, congratulations on a great job and what appears to be a really good road map for the next few years.

Would you like to comment on this story? Find our comments system below.


Andrew Seybold is as a consultant, educator and writer of the Public Safety Advocate, a weekly column for public-safety communications which is available free by subscription and is posted on allthingsfirstnet.com.



 
 
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Comments
On 11/25/20, Arlen Gortmaker said:
FirstNet has absolutely failed our county and our responders. After months of absolute horrible coverage and sending poor reviews up the chain we received word that FirstNet has NO plans to put any towers in Hand County ever. FirstNet sales pitch of 99 coverage across the nation by 2021 is BS for responders in Hand County South Dakota. I guess we are the 1

On 11/24/20, Matt Groveton said:
A year ago we had a number of meetings with FirstNet officials. Have not seen or talked with anyone since. No coverage improvements here and really don t expect any. The promise that rural areas of the US would not be neglected is ringing hollow.

mdg

On 11/20/20, John R. said:
Many great points made that I absolutely agree with. What we have today the slightly modded PTT Smartphone is quaint but not purpose built for day-to- day tactical communications by police fire and ems with one exception . The device needs to be simplified for field use like the standard radio
1 . A Home button default system
2 . A channel selector toggle or rotary with voice feedback and voice control.
3 . PTT that keys the set channel no matter what state the device is in and you can t accidentally close the radio app .
What we are going to see are more smart radios coming out that are hybrids with smartphone functionality and duplex capability. They work over LTE as primary with broadband voice quality and only fallback to LMR.
Regarding pro se mode the hybrid radio takes care of that reverting back to simplex LMR channels and maybe we can standardize on the nationwide Interop channels so other responding units can find us and talk to us.
The problem we re having with FirstNet at the moment is bandwidth in areas where cell sites are congested at capacity. We are told ALL FirstNet users receive priority over consumer users AT ALL TIMES no matter what default Tier you are 1-4 . We have found this not the case when it comes to bandwidth. We are told that the Tiers among themselves only matter in respect to other FirstNet users in being able to maintain connection to the Network. However we have found that elevating to the next Tier does in fact improve bandwidth. So really why are all FirstNet users stuck at Tier 4 by default If FirstNet is to ever become the default network for day-to-day public safety the average First Responder needs guaranteed bandwidth ALL THE TIME. First Reponders respond to emergencies all day long not just some big event. After all what are we really paying for all day long on the network if FN says that Tier 4 has the same level of performance as John Q public Band 14 whereeeee are youuuuuu Oh wait thats only 10 MHz. wide well give us all of it and stop sharing whaever little bandwidth there is on it.
Honestly I think there are technical limitations wireless network engineers either can t overcome OR they are holding back on us and bandwidth is reserved for the Feds during the BIG ONE. Prove me wrong on anything I ve said here. Not to mention Interoperability on Broadband is currently a pie in the sky LMR apparently is still king. Hey at least we know all the things that need to take place to fix the LMR to LTE transition. We just shouldn t be afraid to confront AT T head-on NOW and ask for the straight scoop then verify everything they tell us and demand they fix it to public safety grade. Their biggest advantage is all the spectrum they own I see 100-300 mb s. when it s wide and open in most places I ve been to no other carrier can touch that. First Responders just want to be guaranteed that


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