Tait Podcasts: #4 – What is FirstNet?

Tait Podcast - Discussing FirstnetIn today’s new podcast Evan Forester interviews Geoff Peck, Chief Technology Architect, about FirstNet. In this podcast we discuss the following:

  • What is FirstNet?
  • When will FirstNet be available for agencies to use?
  • Will FirstNet replace LMR?
  • How will LMR work together with FirstNet?
  • Why FirstNet is a slow process
  • Other countries that are exploring nationwide, mobile broadband networks

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If you choose, you can read the full transcript below the podcast.

Podcast transcript:

Evan Forester: Hello everyone and welcome to the Tait Podcast. My name is Evan Forester and I’m here with Geoff Peck. How are you doing Geoff?
Geoff: Very good, thanks.

Evan: Today we are going to be talking about FirstNet. So to get us started, Geoff, could you just explain for people in case they don’t know what is FirstNet?
Geoff: It’s a very good question. Well, FirstNet was set up in 2012 as part of some legislation in the US called the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act which doesn’t really describe how FirstNet does it all. In fact, FirstNet was really tacked onto the end of an act that was going through the House at the time. So FirstNet was set-up as an independent entity in the US really to provide a wireless broadband public safety network across the entire US and so that’s a pretty big mandate.

Evan: Yeah, it’s rather a large area. Is it just in the cities or even in rural areas or what’s the final goal there?
Geoff: No, certainly it’s a huge area and it’s a huge ask as well. FirstNet was created, you’ve got to understand there is a little bit of historical context here. There had been various entities in the US that have been arguing for their own public safety spectrum for many years. Also there was a background of having a few very large emergencies in the US where it was showing there was a lack of interoperability between various agencies who were responding to these emergencies and that was seen as one of the prime causes why either the emergency wasn’t solved well enough or maybe there was loss of life, or loss of property.

FirstNet was really created out of a desire to have an interoperable nationwide, that’s rural and cities, everywhere in the US, nationwide broadband wireless network. Now when they set it up, it was already deemed, if you like, that LTE would be the technology of choice that would be used by FirstNet. So thanks to a lot of other agencies who had been arguing and petitioning the government for quite some time, the FirstNet could get off to a bit of a rolling start. They basically already had an idea of some spectrum that they wanted and they had an idea of the technology they were going to use on that spectrum, so there was an awful lot of work that we did behind the creation of FirstNet. It didn’t just suddenly happen. It was the result of a lot of work from a lot of people.

Evan: So this nationwide broadband LTE network, it’s obviously not completely ready yet. When will it actually happen? When will people be able to use it?
Geoff: Right. That’s a really difficult question. Basically when FirstNet was created, they were given the mandate to develop, build, and operate this national network. While Spectrum was made available in the so-called D Block which is Band 14, it’s just sort of roughly 700 megahertz band. Clearly, just providing a little bit of Spectrum wasn’t going to be enough, so FirstNet was also set-up with a reasonable budget, you would think, $2 billion plus a promise of another five to make $7 billion in total. But, the reality is that’s nowhere near enough money to provide from scratch a nationwide network.

In fact, if you look at the terms of the act, it specifically states that where possible and applicable, FirstNet should seek to leverage existing assets if possible. Now, those existing assets include public carrying networks if possible and applicable. They also include some state networks because one of the things that existed prior to FirstNet were a few networks that had been created under what was called the BTOP program which was also administered by the NTIA. These were basically mostly statewide networks or there were a couple of cities there where they’d been created to provide LTE solutions. Basically kind of like mini FirstNets just for that state.

Some of those assets were close to deployment or in play. Of course when FirstNet came along, they froze all of that, but these were some of the assets that were being considered as things to be used. So to answer your question, when will it be available, FirstNet is in operation now and they’re going through a phase of consultation with states, cities, interested bodies around the US to try and thoroughly understand what they want. I guess that this part is less well known. I guess they’re also talking to some of the commercial vendors and trying to figure out how they can parlay the $2 billion they’ve got into a full nationwide network.

So there is a bit of work to be done ahead of time, but the general consensus is that probably within a year, 12 months let’s say from now, we’ll start to see the first fruits of the first network.

Evan: All right. So when you say it’s available now, you don’t mean that there are nationwide broadbands, but is it just in specific areas or it’s ready to be deployed?
Geoff: Right. Sorry. I meant that FirstNet is up and operational now. The network itself isn’t available, but FirstNet is talking to vendors, talking to end users, and trying to formulate an overall plan. There is a large business case that’s being prepared and of course, lots of agencies have done their own business cases to how this will work. What I mean by available is that the network itself isn’t available, but people can start to plan against the network. They can start to make future plans that involve the network.

Evan: I presume it will be somewhat of a timed roll out? Maybe New York or Virginia, or somewhere will have it first, and it’ll just spread to different cities and states. It wouldn’t just turn on automatically everywhere.
Geoff: Yeah, now that’s highly likely. I agree. I think what’ll happen is that some of the BTOP program networks will come into play because there is an opt-out clause in the legislation that allows large states, if they think they have the money, to go ahead under their own auspices. I think the very first ones that we start to see will come out through those BTOP programs.
Evan: Yeah.
Geoff: Then I think that FirstNet will start to involve public carriers to try and get better coverage nationwide.

Evan: So one of the comments I’ve heard from some of the Tait clients is they’re thinking about buying an LMR network. They’re about ready to do it, but all this talk about FirstNet made them say, “Well, let’s hold off. If we’re going to get this FirstNet network, maybe we can use that instead in the next couple years.” Is that the right decision? There are a couple things at play there. One is obviously timing. They may not get that FirstNet network in time. Then the second part of the question is, could FirstNet replace LMR or the need for LMR?
Geoff: Yeah, these of course are the burning questions. So to try and answer the first part, it’s really a good idea to consider FirstNet. If you’re a state or a city, or agency somewhere and you’re looking at the future, then FirstNet should absolutely be in your planning horizon. It’s very difficult to give a generic answer for everybody because the way that different people or different agencies, should I say, will approach this will depend on their particular circumstances. Really what we need to do is talk to them and find out what their needs are and then we can help them with their planning exercise.

I don’t think it’s a case of either or, which is going to the answer of the second part of your question. I don’t think that we’ll see an either or situation. I think what we’ll see is and situation. We’ll see LMR networks and FirstNet which is an LTE based system running side by side for quite some time. There are a number of reasons for that, just the simple logistics, rolling out a nationwide network, LTE network is no mean feat. In fact, the public carriers are yet to achieve that in reality.
Evan: Right.

Geoff: That’s going to take some effort and some time. The second point is that equipment that runs on the network and the types of applications that you might want to run on FirstNet styled systems are going to take some time to develop. I think also that agencies have to have a mission critical communication system in the meantime. Their LMR system is actually very effective. It certainly does the job. It’s going to take a little while for a FirstNet network to fully emulate all of their capability, particularly because most mission critical agencies base their operations around mission critical voice. Providing mission critical voice is still some way off.
Evan: Through FirstNet.
Geoff: Through FirstNet.

Evan: Right. Yeah, that’s good to know, it’s not an either or. It’s both. Both LMR and FirstNet will come in handy, and have their uses. I would think too the fact that FirstNet isn’t a network you can control, especially in this first decade or so where it’s still trying to its feet. You want to be in control of your own mission critical network.
Geoff: Yeah, so that’s a very good point because traditionally agencies have had full control over their own jurisdiction and rightly so. It’s somewhat uncomfortable feeling that some central body is going to mandate how your network will operate, yet you get to pay money for that and also you get measured against the way it works. So these are all very tricky concepts that are having to be worked through. I don’t think that’s a failing of FirstNet. I think that’s just simply a new reality that’s going to have to be faced globally, in fact, not just in the US, because the simple fact of the matter is that to use LTE networks on grand scale for public safety, and you want coverage everywhere basically, costs a lot of money.

Evan: Right.
Geoff: Until the carrier standards come out in a few years that allow this natively over carrier networks, this is going to be a somewhat uncomfortable and tricky transition. I guess that’s why as a company we’re focused on unifying networks as opposed to simply providing a network. We’re more interested, of course, in the way that these networks play together and the way they can be made to work each to its strength, as opposed to simply saying pick a winner one way or the other.

Evan: Right. Yeah, unifying critical communications, you mentioned that. Are there any ways that you see or ideas, and any of the other Tait engineers have for how we can help bring LTE and LMR together, and really make the sum greater than the parts?
Geoff: Yeah, there are a number of things. I think that the standard operating procedure in most public safety agencies still revolves around voice, voice commander control basically. What LTE does is it challenges that. The first way it challenges it is because it actually doesn’t support voice, not natively, unless you’ve got one of the newer releases of LTE. So proper mission critical voice over LTE is some way off.

These standards are still being formulated and so it’s starting to challenge that capability because there is no doubt that LTE provides benefit. It provides a very fast, effective, data path. I think what that will do for agencies, it will open up new standard operating procedures and new ways of operating where everybody quotes streaming video. I think there are much more useful and mundane applications like Remote Office that really work. These sorts of things actually relieve agencies of a lot of tedium, a lot of work, rather than have to drive all the way back from, say, south side Chicago to your central office to deposit your reports. You can do it in the vehicle.

So these sorts of things open up a lot more time for agencies. They create more benefits, but they’re challenging the standard operating procedures that have been in place for a long time. So there is a transition going on and you asked what are we doing about this. Well, we’re focusing on that transition. We’re trying to ease the path between LMR and LTE not only by looking at the way the applications work, and tuning the network to make sure it delivers those optimally, but looking to integrate things at the core, and also at the edge to make sure that from an officer’s point of view, they don’t have to think about the network they’re on and whether it’s available or not. It just works.

Evan: Right. One of the interesting things you mentioned to me is the saving drive time. So often we think of mission critical networks, you really need them when things are really bad, but how now more and more we’re seeing every day businesses being stream lined and helped. Being from Atlanta where the . .. I don’t know what the average drive time is, but traffic is just a nightmare there. So the idea of saving every police officer in town an extra hour of driving a day can really make a big difference.

So it’s really interesting to see how we’re moving into a place where more and more of just that the business is usual, there are benefits there. Are there any other advantages to FirstNet or LTE over LMR? You’ve mentioned how LMR carries voice and LTE does not do that natively yet. What kind of things can LTE do that is unique and will really help public safety?
Geoff: LTE is fundamentally a fast data pipe. Certainly newer releases of LTE do support native voice, but the standards that support mission critical native voice are some way off. So in the extra feature sets that are required for mission critical such as Direct Mode, Group Mode, these kinds of things are going to come out in release 12, 13, and 14 from 3GPP. So these will be supported on public carrier networks in the future. Of course, we don’t need to wait until then to get the benefits of an LTE network.

So-called over the top clients running on a smartphone can mimic some of the capability of a mission critical LMR network. That’s the standard P25 style networks. So these kinds of features can be made available. The catch, I guess, with the over the top implications is that they’re much more difficult for the network provider, which is in a lot of cases going to be a public carrier. It’s a lot more difficult for them to control those accesses in ways that give priority and best possible service to mission critical users, compete with other commercial users.

Evan: Okay. Just a last question, I’m curious. I know the US is working on this big network. Are there any other countries who are doing this or have already done this, and they’ve seen some success? What’s going on internationally with large scale broadband networks?
Geoff: Yeah, sure. In fact, I think the perception in the US of FirstNet is that it’s really stalled. It’s certainly progressed a lot slower than many people probably wished and there has been a lot of criticism, which has been in the public domain of the way that FirstNet is conducting itself. I’m not sure whether that’s justified or not. I think that certainly when you try to implement a large network like FIrstNet is doing, that’s going to take some time to get it right.

So I think it’s better to take the time to get it right rather than rush it out. I guess that’s my feeling, but I can feel the frustration from agencies because as you mentioned earlier, they are sort of in limbo, “Should we wait for FirstNet? Should we do this or should we do that?” They don’t really know. I guess my advice on that one is that I don’t think it’s going to be an either or. I think you really have to proceed with LMR plans because the LMR is going to be around for a long time yet.

So in terms of other countries, the perception outside the US is, of course, that FirstNet is not doing much at all, that it’s taking a lot longer. I think there are several other initiatives around the world that are trying to do a similar kind of thing. In particular in the UK, the UK Home Office have announced plans. In fact, they’ve gone to the first stage of tender applications for their own network around the UK, which is basically replacing the old TETRA network that was in place in favor of a new LTE based network.

So it kind of mimics what FirstNet are doing with one exception and that’s that in the UK, they already had a nationwide public safety network. It just wasn’t performing well enough for them to continue with it.
Evan: Interesting, yeah.
Geoff: They couldn’t see how to proceed with it. Whereas in the US, there was no single one network. Everybody is on one standard, but the individual networks are run like islands. So in the UK, the system is slightly different, but the net effect is going to be the same. There will be a nationwide public safety focused first responder broadband network. It will be based on LTE. Well, I don’t think it’s going to be based on the same spectrum, but it will be probably a public carrier dominated network.

Similar actions happening elsewhere in Europe, in France, and Germany, they are possibly a little further back in consideration of this. Even in Australia, the debate is probably a little behind what’s happening in the US, but they are debating the need for a nationwide allocation of spectrum which would essentially give the same kind of capability as FirstNet. The catch in all of these cases is, of course, the cost and it is impossibly expensive for public safety to bear the cost of a dedicated LTE network that runs nationwide unless your country is very tiny.
If you look at the size of Australia for example, it’s huge. So it’s impossibly expensive to roll this out unless it involves public carriers.

Evan: Okay. Well, that’s all I’ve got. This was quite helpful for me. Are there any other comments you’d like to make? Anything you might have missed?
Geoff: I think the final point I’d make about FirstNet is that FirstNet will provide a template model for the rest of the world. All eyes are on FirstNet. It’s progressing very slowly, but there is a lot of work, a lot of studies being done around FirstNet. In particular, people are interested in the financial model which is not yet really announced because under the act, FirstNet has been set-up to be self-sustaining, but the fees they extract are not to exceed the amount needed to recoup expenses. So this is an interesting financial model.

If you think about how public safety agencies around the world are cash strapped, nobody has money to throw away anyway. So everyone is looking at new financial models that they could deploy and it’s quite likely that FirstNet will effectively invent the new template financial model, even if they’re a little bit behind in terms of the technical model now.

Evan: Right. Okay. Well, I suppose time will tell what happens with FirstNet and as Geoff said, “The world is watching.” So I hope this was helpful for you guys and thanks once again for joining us here on the Tait podcast. Geoff, thank you for all your insight.
Geoff: Pleasure.
Evan: Have a nice day.

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