FirstNet’s In-Building Impact
By Don Henry
Monday, June 04, 2018 | Comments
The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) is starting to become a reality, so authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) must consider the wide-ranging ramifications of implementing the new mission-critical broadband data service and how it will affect in-building communications for first responders, building owners, facility managers and tenants.

According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), an AHJ is the person or office charged with enforcing the Life Safety Code. With all 50 states, the District of Columbia and territories opting into FirstNet — a nationwide interoperable wireless broadband data network dedicated to public safety — the task now becomes how the states, counties and local jurisdictions along with AT&T will implement and deploy the network. However, each individual AHJ will determine whether FirstNet services will be used on its public-safety communications network.

FirstNet gives AT&T access to 700 MHz band 14 for its Long Term Evolution (LTE) public-safety broadband data services. This means that AHJs that enforce in-building public-safety codes and want to enforce FirstNet would require an emergency responder radio coverage (ERRC) system to support band 14. However, AT&T has stated that FirstNet subscribers have access to any spectrum deployed by AT&T in a particular area, with the FirstNet service traffic prioritized and pre-empted.

Based on this spectrum decision, if AHJs decide to mandate in-building coverage for FirstNet services, it will definitely complicate the design process. Currently, the AHJ’s local ordinance for in-building two-way radio coverage requires specific attributes in the system design, including ensuring that a system is backed up by batteries. Another requirement is that the active electronics in the system be housed in a National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA)-4 enclosure for protection from water in the event of firefighters spraying the equipment. If the AHJ chooses to enforce similar requirements for a cellular distributed antenna system (DAS) used for FirstNet services, the cost to the building owner for additional equipment and operating costs will be significant. The potential increased costs to building owners and whether they outweigh the benefits of mission-critical broadband support for first responders will be considered.

Apart from enforcing a building code that includes FirstNet services, AHJs must determine what FirstNet services are required or necessary for their departments. Technology options are rapidly increasing and constantly evolving.

On the other end of the spectrum, if AHJs decide not to modify their ordinances for FirstNet services, there might not be support for public-safety broadband data devices within buildings. This would limit a first responders’ ability to use broadband services that could help in certain situations.

Primary mission-critical LMR communications is the principal lifeline for first responders; however, adding secondary noncritical voice communications over FirstNet could be an option for AHJs. Opening noncritical voice communications to other services such as FirstNet could provide additional voice communications capabilities, without causing additional load on a primary LMR network. AHJs should decide if they are comfortable with secondary noncritical voice over an independent network.

AT&T is poised to deliver FirstNet and its promise of a nationwide, high-speed, interoperable broadband wireless data network. However, to make it a successful, fully functioning and nationwide network, AHJs around the country must determine whether FirstNet brings value to their first responders. During the next few years as FirstNet matures and developers provide effective apps, we’ll understand the true impact FirstNet will have on in-building coverage and the public-safety community.

Read more about FirstNet’s impact on in-building communications in the April/May issue of MissionCritical Communications.

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Don Henry is public-safety program manager and director of sales for Comba Telecom. He has an extensive background in sales for wired/wireless networking solutions and was a police officer prior to joining the company. He also spent a number of years in the IP networking market.

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On 6/7/18, Mel Samples said:
Good points, i.e. does in-building FirstNet capability require hardened infrastructure as outlined for emergency responder radio coverage (ERRC) or is it even possible to consider broadband as a non-critical adjunct?

Two additional considerations. First, since band 14 is only part of the FirstNet offering from AT&T by requiring FirstNet capabilities does that necessarily mean the system must include all AT&T spectrum? A number of factors point to yes. So does this create a potential issue with other carriers that might say this is unfair competition and that their spectrum should also be included in the design?

Second, the fast rollout of microcells is changing in-building systems by using multiple small cells rather than a single head-end with distributed antennas. This may mean that portions of the building data infrastructure will need to be hardened, i.e. two-hour-rated fiber-optic cable plus local battery backup at each radio location.

There is certainly a lot to think about.


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