Andrew Afflerbach, PhD, P.E.
CEO & Chief Technology Officer
Future public safety operations will rely on advanced mobile broadband networks featuring priority or even preemptive use of available bandwidth, the use of video to enable situational awareness, and a high degree of security.
To ensure they have the network functionality they need—including access to evolving applications—police, fire, and other public safety agencies at the state and local levels face important procurement, policy, and cost decisions. These include choosing carriers and independently verifying and comparing performance levels.
In addition to other service choices, AT&T is starting to approach public safety agencies to offer the company’s services over the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN).
The NPSBN is a next-generation public safety network conceived after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 exposed serious communications problems. For years, public safety stakeholders and others have been deeply involved in trying to solve these problems. In 2012, Congress created a federal organization called FirstNet and tasked it with creating the NPSBN. AT&T won the contract to build the network.
All 50 states and the District of Columbia “opted in” or accepted AT&T’s plan for deployment and operation. (You can read my recent posting about FirstNet—and how localities can plan for the new radio towers and small cell radio equipment installations—here.)
However, the adoption of FirstNet is not required by the federal government. Other major carriers are also offering services with similar capabilities, giving state and local public safety agencies a choice. We cannot yet say whether FirstNet is the best technical solution, or the best solution for all first responders.
It is now up to public safety agencies to decide whether the value of FirstNet is worth the transition. Here are some major considerations:
- Understand the impact of using FirstNet and develop relevant policy
AT&T is offering discounts on equipment, but public safety users should think about other factors. One is an analysis of what all these changes—in both the dispatch center and in emergency vehicles—would cost, as well as what operational and management changes would be required. CTC has deep experience in performing these kinds of analyses. As one example, for the District of Columbia, we assessed the wireless communications needs of all public safety departments and agencies. And we are working with the State of Delaware to define policy for broadband interoperability (including LMR/LTE communications), data sharing, and application selection and use.
- Independently review performance
You may want to investigate how well a carrier is serving all areas of your jurisdiction. Public safety agencies—perhaps in concert with jurisdictions or other state agencies—have every reason to undertake an independent analysis of any network they are considering using. Certain grant funds are available to check the performance of AT&T’s NPSBN deployment in particular.
CTC has been engaged by the State of Delaware to conduct such analyses. To do so, we start with commercially available “crowdsourced” data gleaned from consumer mobile devices. We then perform independent field tests in areas where coverage is weak, analyze the implications for public safety operations, and make recommendations for addressing the gaps.
AT&T is required to make commitments about coverage as part of its FirstNet contract. Still, public safety jurisdictions may want to independently monitor AT&T’s performance as it progresses, conduct a detailed comparison of its performance against that of other carriers, and conduct ongoing testing on various gap areas to assess progress.
Alternatively, jurisdictions may want to work with their states on such an effort.
- Understand your service agreement
Take the time to understand all features of your agreements with carriers and, in the case of AT&T, of its performance contract with FirstNet. Current and emerging areas of concern include guarantees on performance of devices and network resilience during emergencies, operator responsiveness to faults, provision of additional capacity such as truck- or drone-based mobile network devices for service at large events and incidents, access to public safety applications, and service to fixed devices as well as mobile ones.
- Ensure application interoperability
Keep in mind that the driver of the FirstNet effort was the communications chaos of Sept. 11, 2001. Great progress has been made on interoperability since 9/11. But now, as applications are becoming central to first responder operations, it’s important that these applications be truly interoperable. We must avoid creating “silos” that set the stage for future problems.
- Protect citizen network use
Public safety networks give first responders priority access to networks, and even block or preempt consumer use if necessary. But public safety officials need to be sure that network preemption for public safety won’t inadvertently put private citizens at risk if those citizens can’t call for emergency help when needed.