Yet MORE Interoperability?

Andy Seybold’s Public Safety Advocate, September 16, 2016
by NPSTC

Yet MORE Interoperability? For more than thirty years the Public Safety community has been suffering from a lack of contiguous spectrum and many instances of interoperability problems at major incidents. Finally, after 9/11, Katerina, and Sandy, people began to hear and understand the issues and in 2012 after a great effort by the Public Safety community, FirstNet was born. In the meantime, Public Safety systems were being upgraded to P25 digital, and more systems were being combined into regional and even statewide systems. During this same period, less expensive digital systems were being sold into smaller departments that could not afford P25, and many departments have stayed with analog for voice services. FirstNet is about to award a contract to a partner to start construction of the nationwide broadband network, and the FCC has ordered that all voice interoperability channels on VHF, UHF, and 800-MHz will be analog since that is the lowest common denominator for all of the various systems in operation.

Then along comes Potomac Spectrum (http://potomacspectrum.com/) with plans to build out a nationwide TETRA-based Public Safety network that, in reality, would become a shared network with utilities and other types of users. Further, it is promising to be disruptive and make use of a German-based PTT over broadband technology from a company known as TASSTA in order to tie together LTE, existing LMR, and its TETRA network. Just what the United States does not need at this point in time; another company or consortium that wants to come in and be disruptive to the Public Safety community using TETRA, an old voice and slow-speed data technology that is being replaced in the UK, and a push-to-talk broadband system that does not appear to be even remotely compatible with the 3GPP Mission Critical PTT system. Does Potomac Spectrum really expect Public Safety departments will toss out their analog, P25, and LMR radios and replace them all with TETRA equipment?

Many departments are already having to fight with their elected officials simply to keep their existing Land Mobile Radio systems up and running because many elected officials are convinced that FirstNet will negate the need for these voice-only systems. Talk about poor timing! So to recap, FirstNet is about to announce the winning partner to build out the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network, the FCC has decided that analog FM is the lowest common denominator for the interoperability channels, and the State of New Hampshire and/or Rivada Networks wants to repurpose the 700-MHz Land Mobile Radio spectrum for broadband in that one state, creating more interoperability issues. pdvWireless, in addition to bidding on the FirstNet RFP, is building out a “near mission critical” PTT network that might become a broadband network if the FCC agrees and meanwhile is signing up most of the customers the new entrant is after (sans Public Safety).

Now Potomac Spectrum and its partners intend to build what appears to be a nationwide TETRA backbone to every other network in existence including LTE nationwide systems using a bunch of balloons and making the spectrum available to not only Public Safety but others as well (and all this on less than 1 MHz of spectrum?). I think I covered it all but that is today. Perhaps someone else will announce a 100% satellite-based Public Safety system tomorrow that will work indoors as well as in city canyons! I guess I don’t understand what is going on. Local, state, and federal governments do not have money to throw at the latest and greatest promised technology du jour. They have fought hard with their city councils, boards of supervisors, and state and federal legislative organizations to get where they are.

Congress, in creating FirstNet, did not begin to set aside enough money to pay for FirstNet, the eleven metro areas that have to move off the shared TV channels (T-Band) in only a few years have no funding to move their systems, and FirstNet will only be built because a team of companies believes it can recoup its investment over the course of the 25-year contract. Is it possible this new entrant thinks its offering will be so compelling the Tetra network will actually be built and the Public Safety community will flock to it? If I have learned one thing in the past forty-plus years in this business it is that Public Safety professionals are cautious and move slowly; they have to be shown the advantage.

There is, I believe, no expectation by FirstNet or the winning vendor that when FirstNet is launched it will be subscribed to by each and every department in the United States or every member of every law, fire, and EMS team in every location. Instead, many departments will take a wait and see attitude and FirstNet and the partner will have to prove themselves. Over time, as the FirstNet network improves, more departments and personnel will become members. I think Potomac Spectrum and its partners are not reading the tea leaves correctly and are about to embark on a network that will never be built nationwide and will never come anywhere near to breaking even. But what the hell, it’s only money!