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Wireless First Responder Net: Monopoly or Competition?: Page 2 of 2

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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.

BCStrategies is an industry resource for enterprises, vendors, system integrators, and anyone interested in the growing business communications arena. A supplier of objective information on business communications, BCStrategies is supported by an alliance of leading communication industry advisors, analysts, and consultants who have worked in the various segments of the dynamic business communications market.