International Wireless Communications Expo (IWCE) gave the American public safety communications community a chance to discuss many issues, with one of the most pressing being when the first agency will move from LMR to mobile broadband for mission-critical voice. Sam Fenwick reports

This year in a welcome move, IWCE returned to Las Vegas. For me, both the city and the venue felt unchanged (I last attended the event two years ago). However, one marked difference was the scale of Verizon’s presence at the show (both on the exhibition floor and in the conference), which sent the message that despite AT&T’s public-private partnership with the First Responder Network Authority, its rival has no intention of giving up without a fight.

Justin Blair, executive director, wireless business products at Verizon, said “we want to offer a local experience, so when there is an incident you can now manage the quality of service, the priority and the pre-emption locally to make sure the assets that are near an incident have the experience and the network performance they need”. He was keen to emphasise the benefits that 5G will bring to public safety, and that the combination of 5G and related technologies such as edge computing will increase end-to-end availability “not just in terms of the service” but also in terms of “the application itself”. He also highlighted the benefits that could be unlocked in terms of battery life if the bulk of the processing on smart devices is shifted to the network edge.

Pull or push?
One of the standout sessions was a panel discussion on the journey to PTT over Cellular and MCPTT. The big question was when public safety organisations would start to transition from LMR to mission-critical broadband. Nicholas Falgiatore, senior technology specialist at Mission Critical Partners, noted that at some point agencies will have LMR network components that will have reached end of life, forcing them to decide whether they will invest millions of dollars into upgrading their LMR system or opt to switch over to a commercial provider. He added that once all costs are factored in, two-way radios cost around $60-80/month/radio, while cellular devices cost about $40-50/month/device. Given that some first-responders may have a portable radio, a mobile radio, a cell phone and possibly a mobile connection on their mobile data terminal, “monetarily that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and that’s the reason why at some point this [the transition to broadband] is going to happen”.

Falgiatore also said that while a broadband service has to provide “exactly the same thing but better than LMR [if] an agency is going to consider migrating to a broadband solution”, the difficulty of this test varies. “If we’re talking about a P25 Phase II system [that gives] 20dB in-building coverage, that bar is pretty high. [It’s] not that high for everybody, there’s a lot of users in rural America [who] don’t have a 20dB system, they have one channel on a tower that might give them 60 per cent mobile coverage.” He therefore predicts that “you’re going to see some of those users within a few years starting to make this decision”.

Finally, he added: “Whoever is going to be that first agency to [have to] make this decision [will be] in a really bad place and nobody is going to want to be the first to try it and be in a position of saying ‘this might not work’. More often than not, really hard decisions are made because somebody had to make a financial decision [which forces] an agency to go down a certain path.”

Falgiatore was followed by Harlin McEwen, former FirstNet PSAC chair and public safety communications consultant, who won a round of applause from the audience by emphatically pointing out that we already have a good definition of mission-critical: “If you’re in public safety, you know what the hell mission-critical means, it means it has to always work… this is not business as usual, this is life-and-death stuff. If the police officers can’t talk to each other when they’re in a gunfight, somebody’s going to get killed. If a firefighter gets trapped in a building and he can’t talk or ask for help, he dies. It means mission-critical has to work.”

TJ Kennedy highlighted that resilience can be achieved with commercial networks, but “it’s not simple”

TJ Kennedy, former FirstNet president and CEO of the Public Safety Technology Alliance (PSTA), emphasised that “in the US we have the option [of embracing] LMR and LTE at the same time”, which means that the public safety community “can get years [experience] under their belt” in terms of understanding how broadband networks and devices perform in all conditions. He also noted that multiple commercial operators are shifting to a more mission-critical approach in terms of how they manage and operate their networks and that resiliency with broadband networks can be achieved through a combination of approaches including the use of deployables, back-up generation, redundant backhaul and network management – “The good news is it can be done, the bad news is that it’s not simple.”

Which standards?
I also attended a roundtable on the PSTA’s work. It is a non-profit organisation that is working to ensure that the public safety communications community has access to open-standards-based technology. Much of this revolves around trying to assess which standard(s) the public safety sector should put its weight behind for specific technologies, and to this end, the PSTA has a number of technical sub-committees (cybersecurity, identity/single sign-on, mission-critical PTT/video/data, mapping/location-based services, situational awareness, and LMR-LTE interoperability).

TJ Kennedy highlighted feedback from public safety agencies about the lack of interoperability between mapping applications as an example of where the PSTA’s approach could be of benefit. He also said that “in many cases we suspect by the end of the first half of this year that we will be able to publish in many of these technical sub-committees their initial choices for open standards and APIs. They will also be working on draft test cases to ensure that [equipment] can be tested by independent third parties.”

Tales from the fireground
Jason Matthews, sergeant/COML at Lake County Sheriff’s Office, Florida, began a session that looked at some of the lessons that can be learned from recent natural disasters, citing how his state’s public safety communications fared in the wake of Hurricane Michael. Matthews explained that on the first day there was no contact with several counties at all, there was limited use of LMR, mobile networks and PSAPs were out of service and there were major power outages (numerous counties experienced 100 per cent blackouts); the statewide radio system had limited coverage and no dispatch capability. As a result of this, high-frequency (HF) radios and satellite phones “were king” for 24-48 hours. It ended up taking two to three days to deploy resources to some of the rural counties, and the mobile networks were down for days until mobile assets were brought in – “AT&T along with FirstNet provided a quick response [and we] had some coverage back into these areas pretty fast.”

Public safety answering point (PSAP) outages occurred due to a lot of single points of failure – Matthews explained that all of the fibre in North West Florida is above ground “because it’s cheap; we went down roads where four to five miles of poles were snapped up… you don’t recover from that very easily”. He added that auxiliary emergency communications/amateur radio were heavily used and were the only form of long-range communications to some counties for several days. He said in some cases, they had to airdrop satellite phones into rural counties, and one issue was that most of the affected counties were still using UHF and VHF, whereas the responders from the metropolitan areas had switched over to 800MHz – though this was addressed with the aid of LMR vendors.

Both Kody Kerwin, public safety communications specialist at Contra Costa County Fire Protection District, and Chris Baker, a captain of the US Civil Air Patrol and retired battalion chief and investigator from the Roseville California Fire Department, gave their perspectives on the struggle to contain last year’s wildfires in California, with a focus on the Carr, Mendocino Complex and Camp fires. Kerwin noted that the Mendocino Complex fire was the largest in California’s history, burning nearly 460,000 acres. He added that AT&T and Verizon both jumped in to support the mission, and one of the issues was that multiple apps were being used for GIS mapping, and radio programming was challenging due to the size of the incident.

Turning to the Camp Fire, which in another unfortunate first was California’s deadliest and most destructive fire ever, he explained that broadband and Wi-Fi support by non-profit service providers at the evacuation and disaster recovery centres was extremely helpful, that the pre-planned LMR interoperability communication plans for the fire service worked well (this wasn’t the case with law enforcement – “ they don’t like to change their channel” – and emergency medical services), and that public safety LMR communication systems stayed up with a couple of minor exceptions.

However, in the first 24 hours, the 911 wireline telephone system failed and broadband services went down due to damage to the backhaul networks. Other problems included interference as multiple state agencies deployed both LMR and network data equipment that impacted other missions (hence “the need for someone to be managing the data side of the house”) and a lack of overall understanding of the big picture (situational awareness was better in areas where cellular communications were still available). Kerwin highlighted the need for satellite system(s) to support information sharing and stated that having a common operating platform for data sharing is critical.

Baker, who was one of the first-responders who tackled the Camp Fire, gave a presentation on the incident complete with photos of truly apocalyptic-looking scenes. He noted that radio signal levels were very low and he was told that it was due to attenuation from the amount of ionisation in the atmosphere, which was created by the blaze, and this created “[some] problems with simplex” but, due to good radio infrastructure in the area, communications with the dispatch centre were fine. At one point he and his team were lost because the street signs were burning. “It was so hot that it was almost hard to have your hand on the side of the [dashboard].” He noted that in some cases people were stumbling around as though they were drunk due to hours of smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning.

Both Kerwin and Baker made the point that the public is starting to use cellular services as their primary means to call 911, receive notifications about incidents and share incident-related information via social media – in the case of the Camp Fire this was a big issue as a huge majority of the public didn’t get the alert, “the fire hit that fast”. Baker said in such high-risk urban environments, “you have to use a fixed siren-based system”. He highlighted the need for better situational awareness and the amount of reliance on apps and data, noting that even though he and his colleagues had access to cellular data, if they had been able to access a satellite photo of the area they would have been able to take a different approach, along with the need to move to a fully unified cross-agency approach to situational awareness/mapping apps.

As mentioned previously, my last visit to IWCE took place in 2017 and it’s worth dwelling on the huge amount that has happened since then; we’ve gone from the contract to deliver FirstNet being awarded to AT&T, to the FirstNet service being live and as of January being used by more than 5,250 public safety agencies using more than 425,000 connections. With FirstNet expecting to offer a fully 3GPP-compliant MCPTT service in the second half of this year, it will be interesting to see how far the conversation will have moved on once IWCE 2020 comes around.

Plenty to see here
On the exhibition floor, there was a great deal of innovation on display. Three of the most interesting products I saw were RugGear’s RG-C1, a Bluetooth-connected iPhone case with a push-to-talk (PTT) button; the Sonim XP8 rugged smartphone (complete with the SLED proof-of-concept accessory that can support P25/DMR/NEXEDGE – not simultaneously); and Siyata Mobile’s UV350, an in-vehicle cellular communications system which supports in-vehicle cellular calls, PTT over Cellular services and data applications and acts as a Wi-Fi hotspot. I also got to see an MCPTT demo on the Softil stand in which they demonstrated group voice and video calls between a range of smart devices that were using a variety of different operating systems (shown below).

Tait Communications was displaying its TP3000 portable DMR Tier II/analogue radio, which has two simple but ingenious innovations: detachable covers in a range of colours (to simplify the logistics for distributors and resellers, while allowing users to change their radios’ colour when needed) and designated spaces for labels, making it easier to customise their appearance and display important information.

Author: Sam Fenwick