Rethinking FirstNet and LMR
Tuesday, May 17, 2016 | Comments
When first conceived, the nationwide broadband public-safety network, now governed through the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), was supposed to be a high-speed data network. The idea was to ensure that public safety had access to the same high-speed data that the public used every day on their newly evolving 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE) cellular networks.

There were three factors at play with public safety that helped support this view for a high-speed data network:
• The software applications in use required larger amounts of data than could be carried on existing narrowband 12.5- and 25-kilohertz LMR systems;
• Public-safety data and software applications were no longer “nice to have” — what we said 10 – 15 years ago — they had become daily mission critical; and
• Some large urban LMR systems, because of increasing call volumes and improved CAD systems, dispatched first responders with little or no voice traffic.

During the past four years, the purpose of FirstNet has evolved from a mission-critical data only network to a mission-critical voice and data network. Exactly how this change in purpose took place is less important than the result of this change. My intent is to ask us all to rethink this revised purpose and consider discarding it. We need to return FirstNet to the concept of a mission-critical data-only network and focus on getting that part right.

In the meantime, we should continue to use and maintain our mission-critical voice and slow-speed data LMR systems and stop telling elected officials and budget folks that LMR will go away. Public safety’s mission is too important to depend on only one network for the foreseeable future.

There is an old adage, “simple is better.” LMR systems across the country, perhaps as many as 50,000, are generally hardened and work well under stress. They have been refined for more than 50 years to the point that most have two or three levels of failover, and this has been codified in standards such as National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1221 and others. By contrast, many links, servers and gateways — all connected by IP technology— are needed for an LTE system to work. Fail-soft features are not particularly inherent in LTE systems. In addition, updating the many software packages in an LTE system will not be as simple as in an LMR trunking system.

Some see the thousands of discrete LMR systems across the country as a problem, but every sword has two edges. In a world that is increasingly threatened by hackers, criminals and activists, putting all of the nation’s 3 million first responders on a single network is to invite disaster. Not a day goes by that we don’t read about some government agency, police department, bank or utility, whose IP computer networks have been hacked, and information is held for ransom or the system is taken down. Our decentralized LMR systems, many of which are not IP based, and with their layers of fail soft, provide an alternative to the IP-based FirstNet, should FirstNet be taken down locally, regionally or nationally. Nor should we assume that FirstNet will be “hack proof,” because, so far, no other government network has proven itself to be so, including defense networks.

We need to realize that we have a tremendous asset already in place with our existing LMR systems. They are reliable, and in many cases hardened, delivering mission-critical voice and low-speed data — identification (ID), emergency and status messages. The tens of thousands of silos represented by these systems are a huge advantage, because it makes it more difficult for bad actors to bring down all the communications resources in an area. For example, many city systems have surrounding suburbs with their own communications systems that provide at least some coverage at the periphery of urban areas. State and federal systems exist separate from city systems, yet often have some limited city coverage and capacity. So, if the urban LMR system is taken down, limited operations in the city could still be handled by neighboring systems or federal or state systems.

The successful vendor to the FirstNet request for proposals (RFP) has a massive task ahead: Build a nationwide network for public safety, train public safety to use it, manage the applications that are allowed access and monitor/maintain the network across as many as 56 states and territories. The public carriers have had decades to build out and improve their networks in stages, yet they don’t even cover all of the geography that FirstNet needs to. Initially, FirstNet was conceived as an “independent entity” so that it could function like an aggressive startup; now, it appears that its work will be guided by federal accounting regulations, adding red tape and time.

The RFP has 460 work tasks identified; the amount of project coordination needed to guide such an endeavor is large. An analogy to what has to be done might be found in the U.K. Airwave nationwide public-safety system. It has about 600 employees, but that system is much smaller than FirstNet will be.

The current $7 billion allocated to FirstNet is probably one-tenth to 0.033 of what will be required. Macquarie bought the U.K. Airwave nationwide public-safety network for $3.2 billion in 2007, and that system uses UHF, not 700 MHz spectrum. The United Kingdom is 0.025 of the area and one-tenth of the population of the U.S. So a simplistic scaling results in $120 billion to build FirstNet. Other cost estimates range from $30 billion to $330 billion. The business models that some have suggested to deal with the funds’ shortfall are unproven. We all ultimately expect that funds will be found, but it will take time. Finally, once the winner of the FirstNet RFP is announced, we can expect a protest, and more time lost.

LTE systems were designed to provide high-speed data to consumer cellular devices; they were not initially conceived of to support public safety. Public safety requires functions not commonly found in public carrier systems, such as one to many push-to-talk (PTT) group voice communications and direct mode communications or radio to radio with no infrastructure, but with sufficient transmit power to support work groups within a half-mile radius. While much work is being done on this front in the Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) standards community, those standards will take several years to be realized. (see “The Timeline for Public Safety LTE Standards”, by Emil Olbrich, MissionCritical Communications, March 2016.)

For example, there is a 3GPP initiative to create high-power user equipment (HPUE) devices with power at 1.2 watts instead of 200 milliwatts. However, almost all 700 MHz LMR portable radios have transmitters capable of 3 watts output; the difference between 1.2 and 3 watts is 4 decibels. While this is not huge in terms of link budget, it is not insignificant.

Public safety has said loud and clear, “We can’t carry two radios.” The vendors have listened, and at least two major manufacturers have portable radios that can operate on both traditional LMR systems and LTE systems on 700 MHz band 14, the spectrum allocated to FirstNet. The trend is to make these radios software upgradable, so that an agency only has to buy the bands and features it needs now, but upgrade the radio when FirstNet is built in their areas. This requirement has been met.

LMR systems, by and large, cover the geography needed by the public-safety agencies they serve. In-building coverage has become an increasingly important issue. Spurred by the ability of many cellular carriers to offer in-building phone service, many authorities mandate the use of in-building communications enhancement systems for public-safety LMR systems as well. However, providing in-building coverage for FirstNet will be expensive, and it is not budgeted for. For some time to come, LMR systems will be better able to provide in-building coverage than FirstNet will.

In conclusion, FirstNet has daunting economic, technical, political and execution tasks ahead. FirstNet deserves all of our support as it proceeds down the complex path that lies before it. First responders need an advanced, high-speed, hardened, cyber secure, ubiquitous, national data network, and that will be FirstNet. Building such a network will take more time and funds than many have envisioned.

But we need to discard the idea that LMR will go away. In fact, LMR needs to be continually maintained, because it represents our voice and low-speed data lifeline. The independent silo architectures of LMR are not an Achilles’ heel, but rather an inherent strength in a world of rogue terrorists and hacktivists who like to break things and watch the headlines. It works and has so for decades. It already exists, and the politicians and budget holders need to be convinced to reassess their thinking on funding capital improvements on LMR systems. Finally, we need to discard the notion that public-safety spectrum at VHF, UHF, 700 and 800 MHz will be freed for auctions so that cellular carriers can feed the insatiable desire of the public to walk down streets watching videos or playing games. Our need is more important, and our use is fairly spectrally efficient; we can carry a life-saving voice message in a 12.5- or 25-kilohertz channel.

Let’s change our thinking and messaging now.

Editor's Note: The full version of htis article will run in the June issue of MissionCritical Communications. Would you like to comment on this story? Find our comments system below.

John Facella, P.E., C.Eng., is an electrical engineer and principal at Panther Pines Consulting, specializing in public-safety communications consulting. He has more than 30 years in the wireless industry, including working for Motorola Solutions, Harris and a national consulting company. He is a member of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) communications committee, the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) broadband EMS working group, and the National Fire Protection Association 1221 and 1802 committees. He also has 30 years of experience as a part-time firefighter and EMT. He can be reached at

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On 1/4/17, Norma Stitts said:
FirstNet is nothing compared to the innovation stifling beast that P25 is...

On 6/3/16, Alphonso Hamilton said:
Well stated and informative, especially with respect to the significant cost and time it will take to complete the infrastructure buildout. Too often LMR is compared with cellular phones, which shows a lack of understanding of mission-critical communications networks. Let's hope our government and elected officials read this article.

On 6/2/16, Dirk Young said:
Great job John, and you are spot on with your analysis of the technology. We continue to hear from our users, especially the men and women on the street. Simple is better. They just want their radios to work when they push their push to talk (PTT).

On 5/23/16, Juhani Lehtonen said:
Very similar argumentation to maintaining the LMR can be used to support dedicated plus commercial network use for data. A cost-effective and resilient high-availability data connectivity can be achieved by using a combination of FirstNet and selected one to two commercial networks additionally. The system just needs to be able to switch seamlessly between the networks in case of coverage problems or other failures.

On 5/19/16, Gene Thielman said:
A longish way of stating, "Don't bite off more than you can chew," and "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Well stated, sir ... Well stated indeed. Let us just hope the politicians heed the concept and let the professionals make it all work.

On 5/18/16, Tony Gray said:
I couldn't agree more, John. Well argued and thoughtful. It should be required reading in every administration currently focused on future mission-critical broadband implementations.

On 5/18/16, Jim Swartos said:
Great article, John. I hope that the people with the purse strings listen and take heed.

On 5/18/16, Steve Riddl said:
Excellent article. I couldn't agree more. I have always believed it is a bit foolhardy to put all of one's eggs into a single basket. I don't believe any one communications system can be all things to all people; i.e., agencies or services with an equal amount of efficiency and effectiveness for all. I hope FirstNet doesn't become a poor solution to a problem that doesn't really exist in the first place but instead is used for what it was originally conceived of to do best — transfer data.

On 5/18/16, Chris Laker said:
A classic article from an LMR engineer looking to protect his business. Who remembers dial up internet? Nobody because of progress. Who still has a flip phone? Nobody because the market moves to continually improve. The author better study up on Long Term Evolution (LTE); otherwise he is going to be out of a job in the future. LTE is the future. Shape up or get out of the way.

On 5/18/16, William Collinson said:
This is one of the most coherent and on-point editorials about this topic I have seen yet. I especially agree with the points Mr. Facella makes regarding the vulnerability of Long Term Evolution (LTE) IP-based wide-area networked solutions vs. contemporary LMR. There is simply nothing in our experience to date to suggest that an LTE solution has the survivability of a well-executed regional LMR network.

On 5/18/16, Jeff Nelson said:
I echo the views that Mr. Facella's points are well reasoned and clearly articulated. The industry needs more of this kind of customer-centric focus from experienced and thoughtful individuals who really understand the pros and cons of various technologies.

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