Public-Safety Voice Must Evolve with User Adoption
By Andrew M. Seybold
Friday, June 03, 2016 | Comments
There are significant differences between the voice systems that are the current lifeline of the public-safety community and the coming First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) broadband system.

FirstNet was originally designed for data and video, but has now been expanded to include dial-up or telephony services, push to talk (PTT), text, and data and video services. The public-safety community relies on voice to ensure its own safety in the field, and that means LMR. However, some believe voice over FirstNet or voice over Long Term Evolution (VoLTE) will soon provide all of the same services currently available over LMR systems. Is this a realistic expectation? Should public-safety agencies plan to move away from their LMR voice systems in favor of the new FirstNet network? My response is a solid “no” and here is why.

LMR systems are closer to being what is known as public-safety grade than any Long Term Evolution (LTE) system in existence. However, it is not clear whether the FirstNet LTE system can be built to meet public-safety-grade standards anytime soon, if at all. The differences between the two types of technologies, network architecture, network construction and operational characteristics are significant.

Yes, there are ongoing efforts to harden the LTE network, and there is work in progress to provide what some consider to be mission-critical or public-safety-grade PTT over LTE, as well as off-network communications using LTE devices. And there is already a standard for multicast or broadcast for LTE networks. All of these are in process but none are in service, and many of these projects have yet to make it off the drawing boards. Does it make sense to expect all of these changes to LTE to occur and be proven in the field? Should we expect the devices that support them to enter the market anytime soon?

The sensible course of action would be to implement FirstNet using what is real, what is practical and what is proven in the field in the more than 500 commercially launched LTE networks around the world, according to Global mobile Suppliers Association (GSA) June data. If FirstNet truly believes dial-up voice (telephony) is a requirement of the network, it should be part of the network from day one as should text, data and video capabilities. Those working on these other additions or pushing FirstNet toward these additions to LTE should understand that even though many public-safety organizations now use broadband data over commercial networks, they are, for the most part, using these services to fixed mobile devices and not to handhelds carried by all personnel in the department.

While FirstNet is being rolled out, there will be a learning curve, new devices to become familiar with, and new applications to try and then fit into a department’s approved list of services. There will be instances where too many users in close proximity to each other will slow or bring down FirstNet until the capabilities and limitations of the network are understood.

Public-safety personnel already know the limitations and workarounds of LMR systems. They know that two people cannot talk on the same channel at the same time, and they know when they are out of range or need to talk into a building, they can leave the network by changing a channel and talking directly to units in the field no matter where they are. Most importantly, they know when they need help and push the button on their radios, someone will hear them.

What is needed is a plan to slowly integrate FirstNet into public safety. FirstNet is one communications tool that can and will assist personnel in the field and those commanding them to be able to do their jobs better, faster and safer. However, it is not the only communications tool. History can and should be a predictor of the future. When we consulted corporations that wanted to implement mobile data solutions — well before broadband, when data was new and much slower but still a viable productivity tool — there were applications, devices and networks available.

Over the years we learned to assist our corporate clients in the implementation of data services. For example, during the initial testing of the wireless data and applications, we learned to make sure the beta testers — for want of a better phrase — were a mixture of old, young, top producers and even slackers within the company. This enabled the company to quickly learn the level of acceptance it could expect. Next, we recommended that the company start with a single application in the field. Companies that loaded a bunch of applications on the devices and issued them usually failed in their attempts to implement wireless data. However, companies that started with a single application and added more over time, and those that did not require the field force to dramatically change the way they performed their tasks, were successful.

The level of understanding of wireless data services is much higher than it was in those days, and the number of first responders using broadband data is probably well into the 90-percent range. However, personal data use is for totally different purposes and applications than first responders will be exposed to with FirstNet and a handheld device. There is a huge difference between playing a game or looking up a place to eat and receiving data about an incident you are responding to or providing input on the incident once you are at the scene. Training is a key ingredient to the success of FirstNet, and providing too many applications and too many different use scenarios in the first few months of public safety’s migration to FirstNet will only confuse those in the field. Confusion will cause first responders to not use what is provided or lose confidence they will be able to do so without making mistakes.

There is no law or requirement for public-safety agencies to adopt FirstNet. Many are already using commercial broadband networks and know how they work. The winning request for proposals (RFP) vendor will not only be responsible for selling devices for use on FirstNet but, more importantly, for creating a buzz about FirstNet so the public-safety community will want to join and take part in experiencing the FirstNet system. FirstNet has to be sold for what it can do today, not what it will probably be able to do in the future. It has to meet the needs of public safety but not all of the needs. LMR must be kept front and center for voice. FirstNet needs to be there to provide data and video services, one or two field applications, and not much else until those in the field are truly conversant with the devices, the network and the capabilities it brings them.

Then, it will be time to add more applications, different types of devices and, after a period of time, perhaps to introduce some new features and functions of LTE previously mentioned. If these new additions to the network prove to be viable and worthwhile, and the network proves to be robust and near public-safety grade, those in the field will accept and use these new capabilities.

Let’s look at PTT over FirstNet for example. If departments start using PTT and find it works as well or even better than their existing LMR systems, if the coverage is better, if it affords them all the capabilities their LMR system does, they will, over time, stop using their LMR system and use PTT over LTE more. Once they move to LTE (FirstNet) for all of their PTT needs, the discussion about not supporting their LMR system is appropriate, but not before.

Those pushing LTE as the be all end all of public-safety communications need to remember that even some LMR radios have become too difficult to operate in the field. Many still in uniform cut their communications teeth on an LMR radio that had only a rotary switch on top to change the voice channel. Some radios had only a few channels and some had up to 16. These radios were worn on the belt and by reaching down with one hand the user could change the channel as instructed. Users knew which channel they were on and counted clicks forward or backward. It was simple, fast, there was no need for eyes on the device and one-handed operation changed the channel.

Those in the field have a lot to do. Communications is vital to them, but it is a tool, not a way of life. Many of those I talk with who are not within the public-safety community but are in the wireless world live, eat and drink wireless. Their view of the world is vastly different from those in the field wearing a Sam Browne belt with multiple devices hanging from it. Their radio is one of these devices. If they are in fire gear they have other tools they need and use and are perhaps wearing gloves.

In addition, if the public-safety community is using a single, nationwide network for all its communications requirements — telephony, text, PTT, data and video services — that network becomes a huge target for those who want to disrupt the ability of first responders to react to an incident. Having different LMR networks and FirstNet ensures it will be much harder to disrupt communications.

Since the 1930s, public safety has been using voice communications. There have been advancements, and voice has evolved to become better and more robust, but it has not changed overnight. FirstNet will also evolve from a network that provides basic broadband services to perhaps one day, the only network public safety needs. However, if that evolution is forced on the public-safety community and not allowed to come in its own time, FirstNet will fail in its promise to the public-safety community.


Andrew M. Seybold is CEO and principal analyst of Andrew Seybold Inc., a wireless industry consulting firm. Seybold, who has nearly 30 years of experience, is former vice chair of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) International Broadband Committee. He can be reached at aseybold@andrewseybold.com.



 
 
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Comments
On 6/8/16, Fred Marvin said:
Mr. Seybold makes a lot of sense in his article. He reminds us that any communications device is only a tool and not everyone uses them the same way with the same capacity. Evolution will work better than a forced acceptance — after all one size doesn't fit all.

On 6/8/16, James T Fortney said:
Technical innovation is exciting, but let's hope the reasoned application approach discussed here is appropriately considered.

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