The American evolution

Philip Mason talks to FirstNet chief executive officer Ed Parkinson about the additions made to the network over the past 12 months, as well as the benefits of a ‘competition’-based model.

Could you give an update regarding what’s happened with FirstNet over the past 12 months? It’s been an extremely unusual year…

As you say, it’s been an unusual and dramatic time – the world is a very different place now than it was at the beginning of 2020. From our perspective, the last 12 months have also seen a dramatic shift in terms of first-responders’ relationship to public safety broadband, and FirstNet in particular. It has become a crucial part of what they do.

What in particular has prompted that shift in attitude? How has it manifested itself?

COVID-19 has obviously had a dramatic impact on everything, including public safety. While people have been dealing with that, we’ve also had wildfires, hurricanes, civil unrest, and so on.

A really good example of FirstNet deployment took place earlier this year when hurricanes hit the Louisiana coast. There’s one parish called Cameron which was totally devastated, with barely a building left standing. We were able to provide service for the emergency management effort, via the extended coverage enabled by the FirstNet One blimp.

Have public safety agencies made specific use of FirstNet in relation to the response to COVID-19?

Regarding Coronavirus in particular, we’re now seeing emergency services broadband being used in relation to mass testing centres and massive vaccination distribution facilities. FirstNet has been there every step of the way, providing coverage at these various sites.

Some of the larger vaccination centres are often quite a long way outside of the major metropolitan areas, where commercial services aren’t as strong. So, again, we’ve been able to mobilise our deployable assets, such as trucks and drones.

How is the service being used by first-responders, as part of ‘business as usual’ operations? Is it simply a matter of increasing situational awareness through the use of data, or has the use-case evolved?

Situational awareness is still a huge part of the use-case for FirstNet. If you look at something like the Super Bowl, or the annual Houston Rodeo, which is the world’s largest livestock event, it’s now so much easier to disseminate information relating to these huge crowds.

For instance, in the past, if a child had gone missing at one of these events, you’d have to describe them over the police radio. Now, officers can disseminate a photo of the child provided by the parent.

Parallel with this, there’s also been a dramatic change in how public safety is thinking about the technology in a systematic way, as well as how they might want it to evolve.

One example of that is the use of the network by the Green Bay Police Department, which has enabled them to maintain cellular coverage on Sundays when the Green Bay Packers are playing. Green Bay is a really small town, except on game day when the population swells.

Obviously, we’re also on the doorstep of FirstNet MCPTT, as well as things like ‘Z-Axis’, which is a three-dimensional mapping application.

What impact do you think FirstNet’s burgeoning MCPTT functionality will have? Do you see a time when first-responder organisations abandon their LMR handsets altogether?

Ultimately, everything’s going to be down to public safety itself to decide what it wants to do, and the direction in which it wants to go. As we’ve discussed, in the near term we’re seeing organisations use the FirstNet functionality primarily to increase situational awareness, thereby augmenting what they’re already able to do with their radios. We’re not encouraging people to switch off their land mobile radios – quite the opposite, as a matter of fact.

Having said that, AT&T recently announced that FirstNet PTT now supports interoperability between LTE and LMR, built to 3GPP standards. Again, it will be down to the organisations themselves to decide when our MCPTT is good enough to meet operational needs.

One thing we are currently seeing is FirstNet interoperability helping to expand LMR functionality, but without encroaching on the organisation in question’s radio footprint. I was recently talking to a police chief in Anchorage, Alaska, and he was telling me how he’s now able to listen in on all his LMR traffic, via the use of the FirstNet PTT application.

There are thousands of independent LMR systems currently being used by local public safety all across the United States. The transition from that to FirstNet PTT will only begin when the first-responder actively chooses a smart device over LMR. I’m sure one day that will happen.

In what other ways is the network evolving, other than PTT and the extended coverage piece?

We’ve recently launched MegaRange, which is high-powered user equipment, specifically requiring Band 14 spectrum in order to operate. The MegaRange tools can significantly improve connectivity, particularly at the edge of coverage, for instance in rural or maritime locations. These [AT&T] towers are remarkable, but they only go so far.

The tools should be useful for urban and suburban responders as well, for instance in connecting to harder-to-reach places like elevators, parking garages and basements.

What has been the main benefit of FirstNet having its own spectrum?

Having our own spectrum is a complete differentiator when it comes to other services and commercial networks. It also enables us to hold AT&T accountable, which in turn allows for much greater oversight to ensure they deliver what they said they would do for public safety.

From a technical point of view, Band 14 has enabled AT&T to deploy its network faster, for instance in relation to 5G. Having the spectrum has enabled them to run up the tower just once in order to hang their radios, rather than going up multiple times.

Just to clarify, as a government agency, we retain the licence for Band 14, which AT&T then leases from us for excess network capacity.

The American public safety broadband model is very much ‘competition’-based. Going back to a previous question, do you feel like you’re in competition with organisations’ legacy technology?

Not at all. As I said, we’re here to augment the LMR systems which are out there and being used right now. The great thing about the FirstNet business model is that there’s no mandate to use it, which means the needs of users are dictating the market.

A good example of that is prior to the creation of FirstNet, public safety went to all the major carriers and asked them for priority and pre-emption, and they all said no. After FirstNet came along, other carriers started to market their own versions of public safety broadband, taking into account those requirements.

Another knock-on effect is that since the network was rolled out, we’re seeing a dramatic decrease in money being spent by public safety on monthly subscription plans. So, competition is a good thing.

How has the market changed since the likes of Verizon got involved? What has been the implication of that kind of competition from FirstNet’s point of view?

Again, I think it’s great that users now have a choice in what network they choose. Nothing breeds good customer service like competition, and having specific, public-safety-tailored products can only be a good thing.

As I said, there’s no mandate to use the service, but you’re still seeing public safety organisations gravitating towards it. That illustrates a confidence in the market which didn’t necessarily exist before, particularly when you introduce Band 14 into the equation.

We place our entire focus on engaging with public safety, and any decision we make comes from their input. We’re trying to implement a larger holistic vision, and public safety organisations are really responding to that. Do we get everything right? Of course not, but the heart of what we’re trying to do is put public safety first.

How do you see the network evolving from here? Where does 5G fit in?

This has to be a phased approach – you can’t just flick a switch and have 5G. The initial upgrade in terms of infrastructure was approved last year, and will give FirstNet users with the appropriate devices access to AT&T’s 5G spectrum.

The evolution of 5G is a multi-stage approach across the board, so 4G isn’t going anywhere, and for a long time the two of them will co-exist. Our strategy is to take advantage of that process of evolution.

Editorial contact

Philip Mason
Editor, Critical Communications Today
Tel: +44 (0)20 3874 9216