For a while now, the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) has been describing the nationwide public safety broadband network (NPSBN) that it is implementing in partnership with AT&T as a “mission-critical” communications network for public safety. And it is entirely possible that the network will live up to its promise. But that is not the type of thing that the public safety sector will accept on face value—it is going to need proof. That’s just the way it is in public safety, a sector where lives are on the line and seconds count, every day.
Buying a car without knowing what's under the hood
Public safety agencies traditionally have had complete visibility into their land mobile radio (LMR) systems regarding capacity requirements and how they are being met. They know how their legacy LMR system was designed to meet these requirements, so they trust it. Ergo, it will be important for AT&T to share with public safety the formulas and metrics it will use to design and build out its commercial network to meet the capacity needs of its public safety customers. This information needs to be shared with public safety, at least on a high level, to give the sector a comfort level. Would you buy a car without knowing what is under the hood? Of course not. The same holds true regarding the NPSBN.
The public safety sector understands that the NPSBN design still is at a nascent stage, and it likely will be months before FirstNet and AT&T have everything figured out. The sector also understands that AT&T is a publicly-traded company whose overarching responsibility is to its shareholders. So, AT&T will have to be careful about how much it reveals about its network to avoid placing itself at a competitive disadvantage. That said, AT&T cannot leave public safety completely in the dark regarding the capacity the NPSBN will provide and how that capacity will be achieved, because that will not be conducive to getting the sector to trust the network. FirstNet and AT&T eventually will need to pull back the curtain, at least a little.
The Increasing Importance of Mobile Data
Some might ask, what is the big deal about this? Traditionally, public safety’s mobile data needs largely have been met through commercial wireless carriers that provide capacity on a best-effort basis, which by definition is not mission-critical. That is the way it has been done since the advent of mobile data. And that was fine when public safety mobile data essentially was limited to text messaging. Today, however, many, if not most, agencies consider mobile data to be every bit as mission-critical as mobile voice. This is being driven by the wide range of applications that are available today, from field-based reporting to automatic license-plate reading to facial recognition, and so on. Best effort no longer is good enough, which is why public safety agencies are excited about the NPSBN. But if they are going to join this network, they will need to feel confident that it truly is mission-critical—and to find that comfort level, they will need some details.
More Details About Mission-Critical Push-to-Talk Expected Early 2018
Network capacity becomes even more critical regarding mission-critical voice. The Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), the body responsible for developing the standards for Long-Term Evolution (LTE)—the commercial technology upon which the NPSBN will be based—announced in March 2016 that mission-critical push-to-talk (MCPTT) would be an element of LTE Release 13, which is expected to be implemented early in 2018. While it will take several years of system and device development and testing to ensure that MCPTT over LTE truly is public safety-grade, it now seems clear that the NPSBN eventually could satisfy all of public safety’s voice and data needs.
Greater Clarity Around What Exactly "Mission-Critical" Means
Consequently, it ultimately will be even more imperative that FirstNet and AT&T define what “mission-critical” means in terms of the voice service that the NPSBN will provide. Firefighters, for example, often find themselves deep inside large structures that prevent talk-out transmissions to be received from, and talk-in transmissions to be received by, the repeater. In such situations, the firefighters’ safety—indeed, their survival—depends on the ability to communicate with each other radio to radio. What degree of talkaround—a crucial capability offered by today’s LMR systems—will be provided by the NPSBN? Without talkaround, the NPSBN cannot be considered mission-critical from a voice perspective.
FirstNet, and AT&T and the public safety sector need to work together as the NPSBN design develops to find some sort of middle ground, to protect AT&T’s interests but also to ensure that public safety trusts the NPSBN. It will be challenging, but like most things in life, where there’s a will, there’s a way.