Tag Archives: PSCR

Why would anyone buy FirstNet?

firstnet-rfpOn May 31st the First Responder Network Authority – FirstNet – accepted proposals from private companies to build its nationwide public safety wireless LTE network.   We don’t know how exactly many companies or groups of companies submitted proposals (although today Rivada announced a number of its partners who have together submitted one bid).   We do know FirstNet has been quite public in its process and wants a “vendor partner” who will develop and deploy its nationwide network with a lifespan of 25 years and an estimated value of $100 billion.

But why would any police department or fire department or transportation authority or electric utility or other agency which responds to public safety incidents ever “buy” and use FirstNet?

Almost every agency involved with the protection of the safety of the public – first responders but also utilities and transportation and public works and others – already uses a wireless LTE network for its field workers.   T-Mobile, Sprint, Verizon, AT&T and others have robust networks which are getting better every day.

Why would an agency switch from a proven network provider to a network provided by an untested partner of a federal government agency?

Here are some good reasons, if FirstNet and its contracted vendor can make them happen:

  1. Public safety partners. FirstNet talks a lot about its industry or vendor partner.   FirstNet needs to speak about and model its partnership with public safety agencies too.  Responder agencies can and do buy services as a “customer” from many carriers.   And, frankly, the commercial services are quite good.   To be competitive FirstNet – and whoever gets its contract – need to build a model where its “partner” responder agencies have a lot of input and control over its products.
  2. A great vendor partner. Generally public safety agencies have a love-hate relationship with their telecommunications carrier.  Each agency can enumerate a set of concerns and issues with their provider.  FirstNet will almost completely rely upon the winner of its RFP to provide service to its public safety partners (customers).   Indeed, if it weren’t for item #1 – the need for a true “partnership” with public safety agencies – FirstNet might devolve into a simple contract administration bureau.    FirstNet must choose a vendor which can rapidly deploy the network, make it robust, and provide superior, turn-on-a-dime, service superior to the existing carriers.
  3. Public Safety users. FirstNet must be broad – embrace a “big tent” – in its definition of public safety responders.   Clearly many governmental and non-government agencies have public safety responsibilities and should be able to use FirstNet, at least part time:  transportation, transit, public works, elected officials, emergency management, water/electric/wastewater utilities and more.  Furthermore many individuals volunteer their time for search-and-rescue, firefighting, paramedic, and other public safety functions, and need some access to FirstNet.   Even the media (TV, radio, newspapers, etc.) have a public safety/information responsibility during daily incidents and disasters.
  4. Commercial and consumer service conflicts. A broad definition of an allowable user as defined in paragraph 3 above would take customers away from the commercial carriers, which was not the intent of Congress.  So FirstNet and its vendor must devise some way of “deputizing” users.    For example, when a citizen transforms from a consumer to a volunteer firefighter, their personal device must be “deputizable” to become a FirstNet device, transitioning from the citizen’s commercial carrier to the FirstNet-authorized service befitting a public safety responder.    Indeed, when a teacher is in a classroom and her school goes into lockdown for any reason, that teacher can become a “first responder” and should become a FirstNet user able to communicate to responding law enforcement officers.

    Managing FirstNet Priority

    Managing FirstNet Priority

  5. Priority. Priority for first responders is often cited as THE significant advantage of FirstNet.  Traditionally priority service has not been available from commercial carriers.  However both Verizon and AT&T are offering or planning to offer such service.  FirstNet’s priority service must be clearly superior.
  6. Local control. In the past, “local control” has meant local control of priority – having an incident commander able to designate which users or devices or applications have network priority.  We’ve come to recognize that LTE has considerable inherent mechanisms for this, which do not need much manual intervention.  Most local control of priority can be handled during provisioning.  The federal Department of Commerce’s Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR) group and FirstNet are well down the road of developing mechanisms for such local control and they need to be implemented.
  7. Local control of deployment and expansion. Public safety agencies have little control over the deployment and expansion plans of commercial carriers.   Occasionally an agency will say to a carrier “we really need another cell site here” or “please don’t do maintenance and bring the network down at 2:00 AM Sunday morning as the bars are closing”.  FirstNet, however should offer much better local control over network deployment and expansion.  FirstNet – or its state partners – might have public processes and even workshops and conferences where regions can specify their priorities for expanding coverage, or adding applications or improving capabilities such as those listed below.  Such “local control” will be the truest and best demonstration that this network is, indeed “public safety’s network”.
  8. Deployables.
    An LTE Site Deployable on a Trailer (Nokia Corporation)

    An LTE Site Deployable on a Trailer (Nokia Corporation)

    It is not feasible to deploy cell towers across an entire large state or geography, particularly if most of that geography is national forest or desert.  Yet communications are really important in the first hours of a disaster or emergency like a wildfire.   In 2014 three firefighters died during the initial attack on an emerging wildfire in the state of Washington. FirstNet could be much more dynamic than commercial carriers in rapid deployment of cell sites during such an event.  PSCR is researching small fleets of unhumaned aerial vehicles (UAV) containing such sites which could be quickly launched after a wildfire or landslide or other disaster occurs.  Other solutions might include cell sites on fire apparatus, back-packable sites, cell sites on trucks and so forth.   This demonstrated ability to rapidly deploy would hasten adoption of FirstNet by local agencies.

  9. Voice.    Any cellular network offers cellular telephone calling – one person calling another.  FirstNet needs to offer a wider range of voice calling apps for responders.   One such capability is push-to-talk – where a single user can push a single button and communicate with a whole police department or fire department, and dispatchers can use the same capability to broadcast to an entire precinct of patrol officers.  Another capability is “direct mode” where one device can talk to others nearby without the need to communicate through a cell phone tower (which may be destroyed by a natural disaster).  PSCR is actively working on such capabilities.
  10. Private “channels” for user groups. Channels would allow, for example, tribal police departments across a state or the nation to communicate (voice, video, text, email etc.) with each other privately.  There really no comparable communications mechanism available today, as each county or department has its own land-mobile radio network and it is hard to interoperate across large geographies.    Private channels could be used by elected officials across a region to communicate securely during a disaster, tribal gambling agents at multiple casinos to talk about emerging enforcement issues, or multiple fire departments from a wide region, all responding to a wildland fire, to communicate with each other and air support.

    PSCR's Mobile Architecture

    PSCR’s Mobile Architecture

  11. Provisioning. Every agency has people who buy stuff.   FirstNet and its contracted vendor need to make it easy to buy it stuff – tablet computers, smart phones, traffic ticketing devices, body-worn video cameras and more.   But FirstNet can also bring additional capability to this process.   A police department, for example, will want its Samsung S7 smartphones configured with a certain set of free commercial apps (Google maps), its own vendor apps (computer-aided dispatch), perhaps local apps (crisis intervention app or wanted/warrants app) and a mobile device management system (for example: Airwatch, Mobileiron, Intune).   A police department will also want encryption, VPN, advanced authentication (FBI CJIS policy).   If FirstNet and its vendor can offer a quick and simple configuration tool to ship devices to each department pre-configured, it would be a significant advantage to the using agency.  PSCR is actively working on a mobile device architecture which would enable these capabilities.
  12. Provisioning roles. FirstNet should be planning to allow responder agencies to specify certain roles for users, applications and devices.  For example a police officer might have a role of “patrol officer” and be carrying a device with the role “body-worn video camera” using an application such as “streaming video”.   Police departments should be able to define such roles for all their users, applications and devices.  This provisioning – and the ability to make rapid changes in provisioning (e.g. from police patrol officer to SWAT member) feeds right into the local control of priority specified above.
  13. Fusion center apps.   There are about 70 fusion centers nationwide who collect information to help detect and prevent terrorism, gang activities and other criminal issues.  Fusion centers have trained a cadre of liaisons who feed them information about suspicious activities.  But communications between fusion centers and such liaisons or other agencies can be hard.  A special app or a private channel could significantly improve the functioning of fusion centers be allowing law enforcement and other liaison officers to rapidly and securely send information to the fusion center, and the fusion center to rapidly disseminate intelligence to responders.
  14. Opt-in Plus. FirstNet and its contracted vendor could use (and pay for) sites already owned by local and state governments in order to improve coverage and capacity.   FirstNet could also allow local and state agencies to buy eNodeB’s (cell sites) and similar equipment for deployment on fire apparatus or other areas which need coverage.

    Amazon's Echo

    Amazon’s Echo

  15. Personal assistants, speech-to-text and similar leading edge capabilities. Consumers know and use Siri and Cortana and Amazon’s echo.   FirstNet should provide such capabilities – tailored to public safety’s unique lexicon and need – for using agencies.

There are a whole host of other potential capabilities which would give FirstNet a marketing and service edge on commercial carriers, helping to encourage public safety responder agencies to switch to the FirstNet service.   A few others are:

  • Robust, virtually unbreakable, cybersecurity.
  • ICAM – identity, credentialing and access management to identify the user of the device as well as the device.
  • “Public safety grade” – rock-solid sites, electronics, backhaul able to withstand disasters local and regional – earthquakes and hurricanes and terrorism.
  • High sites or “boomer” sites in rural and remote areas to cover wide swaths of area.
  • 911 calling for FirstNet users, plus also secondary users who are consumers and businesses.
  • Integration with public safety answering points (PSAPs), their emergency service internet protocol networks (ESI Nets).
  • Integration with Next Generation 911.
  • A robust applications store of curated, tested, cyber-secure applications.
  • Certain nationwide apps or capabilities deployed on every responder device, e.g. situational awareness.
  • IoPST – The Internet of Public Safety Things. This is a future network where sensors and cameras and intelligent transportation systems and fire detection and similar interconnected devices send information to responders quickly to help in mitigation of public safety incidents.
  • IoFRT – The Internet of First Responder Things. This is a future network which includes sensors and devices on First Responders or their vehicles or nearby to monitor them and keep them safe as they protect the public.

State and local responsibilities.   “Partnerships” are two-way.   Local and state responder agencies – governmental, non-governmental and private – need to be good partners with FirstNet and its contracted vendor too.   I’ll write more about this in the future, but these using agencies need to, for example:

  1. Standardized applications statewide, e.g. push-to-talk apps or situational awareness/mapping apps, which help to coordinate response from multiple agencies to a single incident or disaster.
  2. Designate knowledgeable officials to work with FirstNet and its contracted vendor to design and deploy the network locally.
  3. Work with FirstNet to help prioritize needs across a region or a state. Such needs might be expanded coverage, apps and app stores, in-building coverage and more.
  4. Insofar as possible, help remove or mitigate local permitting and regulatory processes thereby allowing rapid FirstNet deployment to occur.
  5. Step up and fund user fees and devices for those local and state responders – volunteer firefighters for example – who cannot afford them.
Sue Swenson

Sue Swenson

Sue Swenson, Chair of the FirstNet Board, laid down the challenge to FirstNet staff in a speech at the PSCR Annual Conference on June 7, 2016, in San Diego.   Over the next year, she said, FirstNet needs to plan for the “excellent operation of this network.”  FirstNet “has to be better than any other network in the world today.”

She went on to say FirstNet is “demanded by public safety, shaped by public safety, FirstNet is public safety’s network.”

Amen.

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Filed under deployables, disaster, drones, FirstNet, future of technology, Internet of Things, PSCR

Firstnet Finds a Fireball

Sue Swenson

Sue Swenson

On June 3rd, Sue Swenson assumed the role of Chair of the FirstNet Board of Directors.  She spoke to a group of about 500 people from public safety agencies, industry and the federal government at a conference near Boulder, Colorado, sponsored by Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR), an agency of the federal government’s Department of Commerce.  Her prepared remarks are here.

In Sue Swenson, FirstNet has found a fireball of a leader.

Her remarks are refreshing.   She admitted past Firstnet mistakes which have set back the effort.   She’s willing to admit her own, past, misgivings.  But she convincingly conveyed why she accepted the Chair’s role:  this work is something which will make a difference in the lives of every American.   And that same motivation drives the rest of us.

Sue has a sense of urgency, but not emergency.   I hate it when a tech employee comes to me and says “we have an emergency”.  As a former cop my response is always “oh yeah, whose life is in danger?”   Swenson feels the same way – unless someone has died, problems can be fixed.   She’s obviously a “can do” leader.

Sue is draconian on customer service.  When FirstNet makes a commitment they must keep that commitment.   If you can’t do it, don’t make the commitment.  “Don’t do that with me [drop commitments], or you will suffer.”

Sue’s remarks indicate a new era of transparency and openness is starting at FirstNet.  Here are some of the other indicators:

  • The FirstNet Board meeting yesterday was conducted in a room open to the public at a hotel.   No more full Board meetings behind closed doors, with only a handful of people in the room, televised with grainy video and hit-and-miss audio.   This is the way city councils and state legislatures and other public bodies meet – it is great to see the Board meeting that same standard.
  • FirstNet staff, to a person, are open and engaging – in person, on the phone, via email.  They ask questions, they ask for opinions, they answer questions honestly, understanding they only have a few of the answers.  Most of FirstNet’s future is unknown – it is yet to be written.  They, like Sue, are committed.
  • FirstNet has promised a public comment and input process on major parts of its work, like a comprehensive network request for proposals (RFP) for equipment and services.
  • The FirstNet website, while still rudimentary, contains hints of the new transparency.  Features such as a blog give timely news.  For example, FirstNet now has about 90 employees and contractors and we’re seeing announcements of some of those hires on the blog and website.  In fact, FirstNet says they will accept guest blog posts from outside – and I’ll be taking them up on that offer!
  • FirstNet encourages potential vendors to engage and meet with staff.   This is extraordinarily important as it keeps industry engaged, keeps FirstNet informed as the technology changes, and gives even small vendors – like local independent telephone companies and tech startups – a chance to be heard.  I’ve heard that, in the past, FirstNet staff listened politely to presentations but were forbidden to ask questions or engage.  So this is a welcome change.
  • FirstNet is highlighting best practices from states – work like a great poster developed by Oregon or a sharepoint site developed by Maryland.   This indicates a true intention to collaborate and work with states.

All is not sweetness and light, of course.   It is still frustrating to hear a lot of talk about the “program roadmap” but yet only have a two-page executive summary which describes it.   T. J. Kennedy, at the Board meeting, described some of the milestones – financial, personnel – which his team has met.   But most of the roadmap is a really a fog to those of us on the outside.

There is also the issue of sustainability. Swenson indicated “the strategy for FirstNet must be a sustainable plan, and that includes recapitalization of the network”.   This issue – a business plan to finance the construction and operation of the network – is of enormous interest to elected officials such as fire district commissioners and state legislators.   But no viable public business plan exists.  How will a nationwide network with only a few million users be able to stay current in technology and coverage and user demands as LTE wireless technology rapidly develops?  We hope and trust a business plan is under development.   Many of us in states could help with this if we see draft versions and perhaps run it through the proposed public comment process

Telecommunicators - Almost Invisible Responders

Telecommunicators – Almost Invisible Responders

I admire retiring chair Sam Ginn, and thank him for taking on the responsibility – something he didn’t have to do – to launch this whole enterprise and get the FirstNet ball rolling and keep it rolling up some pretty steep hills.   And I especially thank him for a phone call he made in mid-2012 to recruit Sue Swenson to the Board.

I look forward to the Swenson Era at FirstNet.   As she eloquently stated:  “[In the past] We didn’t make it clear whose network it is – it is public safety’s network and we have the privilege of working on it.”

I feel the same way – this network is owned by cops and firefighters and electrical lineworkers and building inspectors and EMT’s and telecommunicators who answer 911 calls every day.   Like Sue, I’m just privileged to work on it.

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Filed under 911, emergency operations, FirstNet, Law Enforcement, radio