Address LTE Interoperability Now, Not During an Incident
By Kenneth L. Morckel
Tuesday, January 15, 2019 | Comments
First responders answer emergency calls daily and deal with situations where communications are critical. This includes communications with intra-agency peers and other first responder disciplines responding to an incident scene. When considering the advantages provided by current communications technology, it is unacceptable that officers from different agencies may not have the ability to share important information in the future.

Because of my previous experience as director of the Ohio Department of Public Safety and as chair of the Ohio Multiple Agency Radio Communications System Steering Committee, I keenly understand the importance of interoperability and a first responder agency’s need to seamlessly share and communicate all information. These experiences also led to my understanding of issues and challenges created by proprietary communications equipment and systems.

But this is not a new problem. In 2012, when Congress established the First Responder network Authority (FirstNet) to build the nationwide public-safety broadband network (NPSBN), most public-safety officials, myself included, thought we finally had the solution to our interoperability problems. Even then, it was generally understood that one of the biggest challenges in public safety was the inability of various systems to communicate with each other. At that time, I can honestly say that I did not know of a single public-safety official who did not believe interoperable communications between all first responders to be one of, if not the primary, reason FirstNet was created and funded.

FirstNet had long been envisioned as a single dedicated public-safety network solely for first responders. But there was one significant problem involving a single dedicated system — we could not afford it. This fact now appears to have been forgotten. A commercial solution was rightfully selected as the next best option. But since FirstNet awarded its contract to a single commercial carrier in March 2017, public-safety officials have expressed many concerns that first responder broadband communications are headed toward the same lack of interoperability and lack of competition that we experienced with the many separate LMR systems.

There is unprecedented innovation happening in public-safety technology right now, and this is in part because of the competition taking place throughout the industry. Competition is good, and we all know that without competition, agencies will be forced to endure non-competitive pricing and stymied innovation. But let’s face it, all first responders will never subscribe to a single commercial carrier, and interoperability is much too important to be dependent on such an unrealistic expectation.

During emergency situations or critical incidents, it is important for everything at the scene to work together. When the siren goes off, when the bell sounds or when shots are fired, everything has to work together. Radio systems, broadband applications and other programs used by first responders need the ability to share information — regardless of which carrier they use. Situational awareness applications, cloud-based video platforms and other technology being developed should never be allowed to be proprietary or used to drive subscribers to a single carrier. The lack of interoperability needs to be solved now while much of this technology is being developed, not later at the scene of a future critical incident.

The lack of interoperability between first responder communications systems being developed by different carriers is a real problem. A plan that relies on all first responders using a single carrier is not realistic or practical and fails to consider the realities of state and local procurement processes. First responder associations, commercial wireless providers and technology innovators will all have to be involved to solve this growing problem. I encourage all state, local and federal agencies to discuss interoperability now, thereby ensuring public-safety broadband communications providers achieve the critical goal of interoperability.

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Col. Kenneth Morckel is a retired superintendent of the Ohio State Patrol and former director of the Ohio Department of Public Safety, covering his 33-year law enforcement career. He is the vice president of public-safety programs with The Digital Decision, which performs consulting work for Verizon.



 
 
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Comments
On 2/5/19, Tony Gray said:
Absolutely, I couldn't agree more with the author and article. A fundamental driver for and key plank of the original decision to establish FirstNet was and has always been full and unfettered interoperability. Anything that potentially or actually deviates from that core capability must be avoided at all costs if first responders are to benefit from the U.S. government's laudable original intent.

On 1/24/19, Jim said:
Having worked for a number of cellular companies over the years and actually building cellular sites, I have seen and been involved with the design, building and operation of the cellular sites. Then my work shifted to working as a consultant working with public-safety radio systems.

This background has provided a good understanding of both sides of this ongoing story about public safety and the commercial carriers on the idea there can be interoperable communications among the first responders.

Yes there has been a great improvement in the communications that first responders have today over what they had 10 years ago. But we have a long way to go.

My current job working with satellite dish communications takes me way out into the rural countryside. My cellphones —yes I carry more than one on different carriers — have a hard time allowing me to communicate via cellphone in a good part of the vast territory I travel in.

Has AT&T made much progress in its promise to provide adequate coverage over most of the rural part of our country? Can't prove it by me. This was one of the big points of concern when this new one solution fits all for the first responders came into being.

The new communications system that has come out may work right around major cities. But try using it outside the city boundaries. I think you will find the communications ability seriously lacking. Is this what we were told the system coverage would be?

Let me wave the red flag here now and stand up and say it isn't working outside the metropolitan areas. Hello federal government. Take your blinders off and make sure you can see the grass under your feet. If you're in a large field with a fence around it, your new do-it-all interoperability system probably will not work.

On 1/23/19, Terry Burnworth said:
Good article. The single source company was a major mistake by FirstNet's board. Nothing in the law required a single vendor. The parameters should have been established, and each state could develop a single or network of vendors for the system. This has been completed in other disciplines and systems without the nongovernmental FirstNet department developing a monopoly.

On 1/23/19, Sean Tajkowski said:
Terry Burnworth:
It's actually a congressional and presidential directive after 9/11 and has never been reversed. This all started with Public Safety Interoperable Communications (PSIC) grant funding misuse with the trend of that era, which was how 700 MHz was an interoperability solution. Where did all that discussion go? How much better off are we with life safety after that trend? How is this any different? Have you inspected a cellular provider's site as of recently? Who is regulating quality control, code compliance, reliability and tower site inspections? I'll tell you: nobody. Billions spent with no plan, no disaster recovery and limited footprint in many parts of the U.S. Just ask an AT&T customer who roams. Think of what we could have done with satellite, a true disaster recovery effort. I don't have congestion on an everyday network, and I'm sure not going to with 5G before this FirstNet project is even finished by the awarded single source, which meets no 9/11 lessens learned or presidential directive compliance.


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