FirstNet, the First Responder Network Authority, was set-up as an independent entity in the US to provide an interoperable wireless broadband public safety network across the entire US. Does LMR have a place alongside FirstNet? David Lau, Senior Market Analyst at Tait investigates. He concludes that while FirstNet is an important part of the future of Public Safety communications, there will be a place for LMR for many years to come.
Does LMR have a place alongside FirstNet?
LMR networks have a long history of fulfilling the requirements of Public Safety communications. These days, it is common for agencies to use public carrier broadband networks alongside LMR networks. Each of the networks fulfills a need—LMR provides mission-critical voice communications, while broadband networks provide a large pipe that enables a range of data intensive applications to be run. Is FirstNet the Holy Grail that addresses both needs? Possibly, but not in the short term.
Is an LMR network by itself enough?
It is, for the minimum level of mission critical voice functionality, and in the case of digital networks, low-bandwidth data applications as well. However, some data-heavy apps that require a bigger pipe, can provide efficiencies far and above basic mission critical voice. For example, streaming video provides a large amount of situational awareness to people who are not present at the scene. In-field reporting saves officers from having to go back to the station to file reports and allows them to have a greater presence in the field. Are those greater efficiencies something that you need now? That is something for each individual agency to decide and to prioritize, based on their budgetary constraints.
Can an LTE network be the sole source of Public Safety voice communications?
In business-as-usual conditions, maybe sometime in the future. Mission critical PTT over LTE is still developing, but it has been defined within the LTE standard by 3GPP, so it should become widely available. Advances in the LTE core mean that Public Safety communications can be partitioned and prioritized over public communication, so that in an adverse event like an earthquake where a lot people will be attempting to use the network, Public Safety agencies will be able to communicate without having to compete with the public for bandwidth.
However, LTE physical infrastructure is not as robust as LMR infrastructure. LMR’s greater coverage means that fewer base stations are required, and these can be hardened by both physical protection and battery back-up/generator. LTE sites have less range and are more numerous, so it is not economically practical to have a large amount of battery back up for them, or to provide a great amount of physical protection where they are located.
So, can communications that rely on a network that is not hardened be considered mission critical? The use of LMR and FirstNet in conjunction provides greater coverage and redundancy than just using one network alone.
LMR can also communicate in simplex mode from radio to radio, when infrastructure is not available. Device-to-device communication is specified in the LTE standard with ProSe (Proximity Services), but it remains to be seen how well this feature will work. Also, will the range be sufficient when using this with devices that don’t have an external antenna and a significant amount of power output?
In addition to physical security, how secure is a nationwide network from digital attacks?
LMR networks are, for the most part, standalone networks that aren’t connected to each other. And many LMR networks are not IP-connected. This means that there are fewer points of entry for malicious actors who are attempting to hack into the system. FirstNet will undoubtedly have the levels of security that a Public Safety network of this type warrants. However, there are multiple points of entry and it will be a big target for hackers and others seeking to cause harm and chaos.
When will FirstNet be built out in your area?
AT&T are using their existing commercial network and spectrum to get started, but this coverage is not comprehensive. There is still a large of number of coverage gaps due to the fact that Public Safety agencies still need to operate where it doesn’t make economic sense to build out a commercial broadband network. In addition to the $6.5 billion of government funds allocated over the next five years, AT&T will spend another $40 billion building out the network over 25 years.
Whether that level of funding is adequate to finish the job remains to be seen, but the other key point is the timeframe. Twenty five years is a long time, and represents two potential lifecycles of an LMR network. The reality is that for some parts of the nation, LMR networks are going to be the workhorse of Public Safety communications for some years to come.
Are you in control of your own communications network?
With an LMR network, each agency has control over its communications, especially when it comes to fixing problems that occur. With FirstNet, some of this control is lost, and it is a little more challenging to fix problems when they arise. With the changing face of the industry, it might seem attractive to agencies not to have to manage their own network, and to treat communications as an IT function rather than a radio one. However, when problems arise in the network, Public Safety requires a level of service and response far greater than commercial subscribers.
How easily can you communicate with other agencies?
Interoperability between agencies is a challenge facing a large number of Public Safety organizations, and is a major driver for the creation of FirstNet. Inter-agency communication is attainable using PTT applications on FirstNet. Interoperability is a little more challenging for LMR. While some LMR networks are based on open standards, others are proprietary. P25 was introduced to create a common LMR platform for agencies to communicate with each other. However, this has not worked as intended, and often interoperable communication comes via analog simplex mode.
Is there a place for LMR in a FirstNet world?
Yes, most certainly. Greater use of wideband communications certainly enables operational efficiencies that go above and beyond what LMR can provide. However, the most essential element of Public Safety communications remains mission critical voice, and LTE-based PTT solutions are not mission critical yet.
Ultimately, it is vital for First Responders to feel comfortable with the tools that they are using. No one understands the requirements of a communications network better than those using it in life or death situations on a regular basis. LMR will have a place alongside FirstNet for some time to come.
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