The Importance of Coverage to FirstNet’s Success
Friday, September 27, 2019 | Comments
As the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) continues in its second year of service for public-safety agencies across the country, coverage will help determine the long-term success of the network and AT&T’s contract to build out a nationwide public-safety broadband network (NPSBN).

AT&T continues to add FirstNet connections, reporting in August that nearly 9,000 public-safety agencies and organizations have subscribed to FirstNet, accounting for more than 750,000 connections in service. The number of markets with band 14 spectrum nears 650.

In a May statement, AT&T said that since January, most of the FirstNet connections added were new subscribers to AT&T. In March, AT&T Chief Financial Officer (CFO) John Stephens said most of the 450,000 FirstNet subscribers at that time were former AT&T customers.

Adding coverage across the country, particularly in rural areas, is mandated under AT&T’s contract with FirstNet, with rural coverage milestones built into each year of buildout, executives have said, although the contract is not publicly available.

During an April investor call, Stephens said AT&T expects to reach 60% completion of the FirstNet buildout by the end of the third quarter, and the buildout was 53% complete. The 60% buildout milestone will trigger another reimbursement payment from FirstNet. AT&T received $1.4 billion in reimbursements from FirstNet in 2018.

North Carolina Coverage
The city of Whiteville, North Carolina, moved to FirstNet service in June 2018, and officials are using the hot spots for mobile data terminals at the police and fire departments and AT&T’s Enhanced Push to Talk (EPTT) service to supplement its two-way radios. The city was the first municipality in North Carolina to subscribe all of its departments.

Whiteville has not experienced coverage problems, and rural areas that had some issues are seeing improved service, said Hal Lowder Jr., director of emergency services for the city. “For me, FirstNet has the best coverage and data from the choices of providers available,” he said.

The rural southeast North Carolina city put FirstNet’s priority and pre-emption capabilities to use during Hurricane Florence in September 2018. The city’s entire municipal business district and many residential areas were completely underwater. At the deepest point, a U.S. Geological Service (USGS) gauge read 12 feet of water in the southern municipal business district — the water was over 8-foot fences downtown. Whiteville was cut off and basically became an island. Personnel made more than 100 rescues without boats or any outside support. The hospital was evacuated by U.S. Coast Guard helicopters.

“At one point, in the city EOC (emergency operations center), our data speeds were like old AOL dial-up, and I contacted my FirstNet rep in the state EOC, and a deployable was brought in,” Lowder said. “We were back up to normal in a few hours. During that event, we learned for a time, FirstNet was the only system that was functioning. Our city’s network is cloud based, so I had to have some type of internet service to log on and utilize my command and control, weather gauges and other incident management tools.”

“One of my liaison officers was in the county EOC with his hot spot and phone, and at that time, had the only communications device in the EOC. Our public-safety answering point (PSAP) and LMR system went down as well, and we used the EPTT to communicate with all of our responders in the field.”

FirstNet subscribers have access to an uplift request tool in their local control portal that can be used to give specific users priority and pre-emption during an emergency. “During the Hurricane Florence recovery efforts, there were issues, and we uplifted some of our responders, and it was very effective,” Lowder says.

Whiteville officials also use the county’s proprietary LMR system. The state operates a statewide system, and to be able to communicate with mutual-aid assets, Whiteville has to purchase additional radios on another system.

“With EPTT, I am able to bridge that gap,” Lowder says. “Also, with radio over IP (RoIP), I have the ability to put radio communications into the hands of more responders a lot cheaper. Also, during Hurricane Florence, I had assets that were coming from out of state that did not have either system. We utilized the FirstNet EPTT feature from a cache of deployable devices so that I had interoperability with those assets.”

FirstNet also aids Whiteville’s continuity of government services. “Our city relies on a cloud-based system,” Lowder says. “After Florence, we had no ISP, so we turned to our FirstNet hot spots so that our essential services and administration could continue to provide services. As a result, we have added a router into our newly built city hall that is on FirstNet to give us a third layer of redundancy.”

Coverage in Other States
John Kyler, radio technician for the Clear Creek County (Colorado) Sheriff’s Office and a FirstNet subscriber, said coverage hasn’t been an issue. He said AT&T hasn’t improved service within his jurisdiction, but plans for more sites are underway, and current coverage is decent.

The Clear Creek County Sheriff’s Office, which uses FirstNet as its sole data provider, has not yet used priority or pre-emption services during an emergency, “but we expect it to be ready,” Kyler said.

The Kansas Highway Patrol (KHP) was one of the first agencies in the country to subscribe to FirstNet in January 2018, although officers still use Verizon service as well. KHP Capt. Jim Oehm said FirstNet coverage has improved since the agency signed up for service.

“We have seen the buildout maps, and they seem to match what we are seeing on the devices with the exception of band 14,” Oehm says. “The devices we have do not show when you are in a band 14 coverage area, so we really have no idea if we are operating in that range or not.”

KHP is waiting on some issues with its new in-car video systems and laptops, including static IP addresses from AT&T, to be worked out before it adds more FirstNet subscriptions.

One public-safety official in Minnesota says agencies should conduct their own validation testing before switching to FirstNet service because coverage maps can be unreliable. He said his own local drive testing contradicted other coverage sources.

In Vermont, the Public Safety Broadband Commission (PSBC) said AT&T is working on new site builds. AT&T has until 2022 to fulfill its commitment to build 36 new tower sites in Vermont. Six of the new tower sites are in Essex County, with construction set to begin this year and the sites scheduled to be on air by end-2020.

More than half of the new tower sites in Vermont are being built at locations where there is no cell tower. AT&T forecasts that seven new FirstNet sites in the state will be activated in 2019. As of May, 14 Vermont towns had band 14 equipment installed. FirstNet subscribers have priority and pre-emption on all bands of the network. Adding band 14 to existing towers should increase capacity and coverage for first responders and ensure they will always have access to the network, regardless of the volume of users, PSBC says.

The Elmore County (Idaho) Sheriff’s Department recently subscribed to FirstNet, along with AAA Ambulance Service, American Medical Response, the Anchorage Police Department, the Chicago Police Department, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Seattle Fire Department and the U.S. Coast Guard.

“Rural Idaho presents significant challenges in terms of emergency communications coverage and interoperability,” says Elmore County Sheriff Mike Hollinshead. “FirstNet is addressing our challenges of coverage and providing state-of-the-art capabilities needed to ensure the safety of the public and our law enforcement officers.”

AT&T touts its fleet of 72 deployables for FirstNet subscribers. In May, the carrier added three flying cells on wings (COWs) to the FirstNet deployable program. Each flying COW is comprised of two tethered drones and a trailer for transport that is equipped with a satellite dish and fiber connections. The units are capable of withstanding light rain and wind speeds up to 25 miles per hour. They can reach heights of up to 400 feet, making them ideal for wildfires and mountain rescue missions where the terrain makes it difficult to maintain connectivity. The flying COWs are set to be outfitted with band 14 by the end of 2019.

“We want to make the network available to public safety when and where they need it,” said FirstNet Board Chair Edward Horowitz in July. “This can be macro coverage and capacity, as well as on-demand solutions like the FirstNet-dedicated deployables or in-building coverage. Again, this is evolving and advancing the actual buildout of the network to continue to meet public safety’s needs.”

Editor’s Note: An earlier and expanded version of this article appeared in the August 2019 issue of MissionCritical Communications magazine.

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