Earlier this month, T-Mobile announced a public safety broadband offering, with the caveat that it is contingent on their successful merger with Sprint. Details about the offering were limited, but the important issue is that this is now the third major wireless broadband carrier, joining AT&T/FirstNet and Verizon Wireless, to potentially offer specialized features to first responders. This raises a couple of important questions: What does this all mean to public safety; and how do public safety agencies choose the network that’s right for them?
Increased Competition Helps Drive Innovation
The short answer to the first question is that increased competition is a good thing for public safety. Competition among the major carriers for public safety’s business will serve to keep the costs of services reasonable and should also drive innovation. While both of those considerations are very important, I would argue that the second one is more significant. From a cost perspective, I think we could assume that even if only one carrier offered features specifically for public safety, such as quality of service and priority and preemption, that the costs of such service would probably at least remain in line with the costs for their commercial customers. Innovation, however, is a different story. Public safety should use increased competition to force carriers to develop cutting edge features, functions, and applications that will make first responders better at their jobs and result in improved outcomes.
After all, that’s the true promise and potential that broadband technology brings to the table - the ability for public safety to have access to communications capabilities not previously available. AT&T/FirstNet has a contract with the FirstNet Authority mandating adoption levels, service levels and other requirements. But I’ve not heard of any measurable requirement tied to further innovation focused on public safety, which would be very difficult to quantify. Competition in the marketplace is the best mechanism to drive innovation. Make the carrier earn your business not only through cost, but also by offering the most cutting-edge features. Competition at the carrier level will also drive continued improvements to traditional network metrics, including coverage, capacity and reliability.
Competition at the network level, of course, introduces challenges with interoperability. Specifically the ability for first responder-focused features like priority and preemption to carry across different networks. To date, the battle has largely been fought between AT&T/FirstNet and Verizon, but with T-Mobile/Sprint entering the arena the battle will now span all major wireless carriers. While it may not be entirely fair for AT&T to open up their network to competing carriers after winning the FirstNet contract, the need for carrier-level interoperability is critical for first responders operating in a multi-network environment.
Choosing the Network That’s Right for Your Agency
As to the second question, let me first say that I believe AT&T deserves a lot of credit for stepping up and responding to the RFP issued by the FirstNet Authority to build and operate a network dedicated to public safety. They are now locked into a 25-year contract with specific requirements and government oversight intended to ensure the network meets the needs of first responders. None of the other carriers have any such requirements. Also, despite some current claims to the contrary, none of the other carriers were publicly linked to any response to the RFP at the time it was issued. So, when evaluating your carrier of choice, I would always recommend that AT&T be included in your evaluation process. That is not to say you should just give your business to AT&T, but I believe they at least deserve examination in your decision. There are a couple of approaches to the selection process which can be taken. You could issue an RFP for wireless broadband services containing specific service requirements. However, an RFP for wireless broadband services would not be the same as an RFP for a land mobile radio (LMR) system. In the LMR environment, public safety is looking to build and own their network and can include a lot of specific requirements in the RFP for coverage, capacity, reliability, features and functions, etc. Additionally, service level agreements (SLAs) can be negotiated for LMR networks with associated vendors outlining responses to system issues. With commercial broadband providers, there is little hope that they will make ad hoc changes to their networks to accommodate specific, individual agency requirements, and SLAs of any significance are likely not realistic either.
In the broadband world, you pretty much get what the provider currently has, and it just becomes a matter of picking which carrier will best meets your needs. For this reason, you may want to consider engaging with each carrier who provides service in your area to test their service. Testing service is critical. While each of the carriers develops maps depicting their coverage area and anticipated throughput levels, I’ll go out on a limb and surmise that each carrier tends to exaggerate on those somewhat. The only way to determine which carrier offers the best coverage and throughput in your area is to physically test them.
There are options available to evaluate coverage and throughput with tools, which would require obtaining those tools or hiring someone who has them to conduct the testing, or at the very least deploying devices from the different carriers and testing them across your entire jurisdiction. I’ve heard in numerous places across the country that “carrier “X” does not have strong coverage here which is why we’ve had carrier “Y” for several years.” Please bear in mind that all carriers are continuously updating and expanding their networks, so just because a carrier previously had weak coverage in your area doesn’t mean that coverage is still inadequate. Another important reason I recommend testing all carriers who serve your area is that public safety communications networks are critical to public safety response so any choice of network should be undertaken in a methodical and thoughtful way.
Competition in the wireless broadband market is good for public safety. It’s up to agencies to leverage that competition to make a carrier earn their business. In choosing your wireless broadband provider, it is important to undertake a process like the one you would undertake for any critical communications network to ensure you get the solution that best meets your needs. Public safety’s lifesaving mission is too important to do otherwise.