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Wireless First Responder Net: Monopoly or Competition?

While UC vendors are fumbling to achieve relevance in the mobile space, an important battle is heating up over the next generation of wireless technology for first responders. This noble objective is now coming into contact with the realities of business, and the two largest mobile operators, AT&T and Verizon, are locked in a battle that will define the shape of first responder communications for the coming decades.

This story began in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy, when the U.S. government began looking at ways to improve wireless communications services for first responders. Under the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, Congress created the First Responder Network Authority (FRNA) to build and maintain an interoperable nationwide public safety broadband network (NPSBN).



Following a lengthy review process, in March 2017 the FRNA awarded the FirstNet network contract to AT&T, which will receive $7 billion and exclusive use of a valuable swath of frequency in the 700-MHz range called Band 14. In turn, AT&T pledged to invest $40 billion of its own money in the network over the 25-year life of the contract. The network will be available exclusively to first responders and other agencies (e.g., ambulance companies, hospitals, electric utilities, etc.) involved in responding to civil emergencies.

That would be the entire story except that Verizon, which claims to be the largest wireless provider for the public safety community, is proposing its own unnamed NPSBN offering to compete with FirstNet. Both sides are now settling into their positions to battle for this multibillion-dollar market.

AT&T: On the Run to Band 14
The biggest problem in building any wireless network of this scale is the radio access network (RAN). FirstNet requires every state to have a RAN that connects to the FirstNet core. AT&T will upgrade its RANs in the states that "opt in" to support FirstNet, leaving any state that wanted to opt out having to build its own public safety RAN supporting Band 14 connectivity. That need to build a statewide RAN pretty much assured that all 50 states would opt in, as they did -- by way of illustration, consider that the public cellular networks today use more than 200,000 towers to cover the U.S.

However, AT&T didn't actually need to build a public safety RAN; that would be crazy expensive. Rather, AT&T committed to upgrading its existing cell sites to support Band 14. That upgrade is underway, and AT&T has said it expects to have 12,000 to 15,000 sites equipped by the end of the year. That's still fewer than 10% of AT&T's cell sites.

The device industry is responding to the requirement by introducing Band 14-compatible devices. The FirstNet website lists Band 14-certified devices from Apple (iPads but not iPhones yet), Cradlepoint, Motorola Solutions, Samsung, and Sonim.

In normal operation, Band 14 will support public safety traffic along with traffic from the general public. However, using features inherent in the 3GPP cellular protocols, AT&T can effectively prioritize traffic from public safety users over regular network traffic. It has built a separate backbone, or Enhanced Packet Core (EPC), exclusively for first responder traffic while public traffic shares the RAN.

The unique feature of Band 14 is that in the event of a major emergency, public safety agencies can preempt public traffic on Band 14 and dedicate it exclusively to first responders. Regular network users can still make and receive calls and have access to other services, but not on Band 14. So while AT&T hasn't yet delivered on a nationwide Band 14 RAN, the guarantee of a dedicated public safety channel when needed is a big draw for FirstNet.

Verizon: Working Around Band 14
Despite coming up short in the FirstNet selection, Verizon is still angling for a place in the public safety market. As mentioned above, the company has developed an NPSBN that it plans on offering as a complement or alternative to FirstNet. Like FirstNet, the Verizon NPSBN will utilize an EPC dedicated to public safety. While Verizon lacks access to Band 14, it claims that it, too, can use 3GPP protocols to prioritize public safety traffic on channels shared with the general public.

The ability to preempt the radio channel in the event of an emergency is one distinct advantage FirstNet has in Band 14. FirstNet has even described "ruthless preemption" in which AT&T can summarily dump regular network traffic -- the important exception being 911 calls. Verizon, however, is studying preemption, as Mike Maiorana, SVP of Verizon Enterprise Solutions-Public Sector told IWCE's Urgent Communications --though the whole concept does seem diametrically opposed to the "shared channel" philosophy.

In the meantime, AT&T is launching a counteroffensive in support of FirstNet.

Voice Calling in the Distance
It's hard to argue against a solution to improve communications among first responders in light of the horrific events we have witnessed over the past several years. First responders still depend heavily on push-to-talk (PTT) radios operating on Land Mobile Radio (LMR) bands for voice, and a hodgepodge of solutions for video, text, and broadband data.

Interestingly, neither FirstNet nor Verizon's NPSBN have a published date for voice calling support, though all of the mobile operators offer a prioritized voice service called Wireless Priority Service (WPS). FirstNet and the Verizon offering will initially support broadband data, video, text, and PTT.

One really radical idea in these public safety standards is Mission Critical PTT (MCPTT), defined in the 3GPP standards starting with Release 13. Like all cellular services, PTT transmissions to and from mobile devices are relayed through a cell tower or Base Transceiver Station (BTS); a server in the carrier's network relays transmissions between or among groups of users.

MCPTT has a capability called Proximity Services that will allow first responder mobile devices operating in the same area to recognize one another and communicate directly without going through the BTS. This has the potential to deliver a much more flexible, responsive, and resilient PTT capability for first responders.

Conclusion: Monopoly or Competition?
As we find in many cases, the technical advantages are easy to grasp, but the optimal business arrangement to deliver them is elusive. Without a doubt, if there are to be alternative public safety solutions, full interoperability for all services (including such challenging arrangements as direct device-to-device communications for multi-carrier MCPTT) is imperative. However, there's only one Band 14, so it cannot be allocated to one carrier in one state and another carrier in a different part of the country.

By the same token, the inherent risk of "carrying all of your eggs in one basket" comes up in all discussions of a resilient public safety communications solution. So which way do you go?

The good news is that both the AT&T/FirstNet and Verizon solutions are rolling out, so first responders are starting to get access to better and more available communications to do their jobs. From a technical standpoint, FirstNet is a great idea, and some of the planned capabilities will push cellular technology in new and very promising areas. However, I fully expect it will take excellent performance in the field and no small amount of cajoling to get first responders to abandon their (usually) tried-and-true LMR systems.

Any public-private partnership is bound to face this type of inherent competitive tension. Hopefully the powers that be will have the wisdom to create a business environment that ensures first responders get the best technology and the most effective and reliable communications to protect their own lives while saving ours.

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