The battle for public safety clientele is as hot as ever as the nation reels from the COVID-19 health crisis and protests fighting for racial equality in cities across the country. One of the voices in that mix is William Bratton, who serves as chairman of the Verizon First Responder Advisory Council (VFRAC).
He’s a former New York Police Department (NYPD) commissioner, having served two terms, ending in 2016. He also spent time as the chief of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and is the current vice chair of the Homeland Security Advisory Council, as well as executive chairman, risk advisory at consulting firm Teneo.
Effectively, Verizon is providing predictive capabilities and increasingly, precision communications that were only dreamed of when the Minority Report movie came out in 2002. What seemed so far-fetched at the time is actually old school compared to what can be done today, he told Fierce.
Bratton, who began his career as a police officer in Boston in 1970, remembers walking the beat with dimes in his pocket and a call box key. His first radio was the size of a brick and weighed as much. Today, he’s sympathetic to the amount of gear officers are carrying around, including smartphones, tablets, body camera equipment and more.
Keeping an eye on the prize
When it comes to communications for public safety agencies, Verizon holds the largest market share in the U.S., and it’s not going to let that business go quietly to AT&T, which in 2017 won the contract for FirstNet, the nation’s first broadband network dedicated for public safety.
But given AT&T’s position with FirstNet, Verizon needs to get the word out to current and prospective public safety agency customers. The VFRAC was formed in 2019; it helps advise Verizon on the needs of public safety agencies.
The council is comprised of some of the nation’s most distinguished public safety leaders. Now Verizon is making the council available to current and prospective Verizon public safety customers through a series of upcoming events and meetings.
The first virtual event will be on August 18 and will feature a panel discussion on public safety service "in these unprecedented times." In a June 1 speech, Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg announced the company was committing $10 million to organizations dedicated to racial equality and social justice.
“The advisory board is coming out in public at a very advantageous time for public safety,” Bratton said, noting that the members of the council regularly tell Verizon executives what they need to hear from the front lines. “We’re a tough customer,” he said. “We want everything yesterday.”
Verizon is not disclosing the number of public safety customers it serves, but it’s working hard to maintain its No. 1 position in the market and the trust of those agencies, according to Maggie Hallbach, vice president of business development and strategic sales at Verizon.
With the council, “we really felt that it was important for us to continue to make sure we listen,” and that’s across federal, state and local agencies with representation beyond law enforcement to include services like fire, EMS and homeland security, she said.
Verizon has been a long-standing supporter of interoperability, Hallbach said. Referring to a Boulder Regional Emergency Telephone Service Authority (BRETSA) request to make interoperability a fundamental responsibility of FirstNet, she said Verizon has been fully in support of interoperability. However, AT&T and FirstNet have taken a different stance.
FirstNet argues (PDF) that its network is interoperable by virtue of states and territories opting in, and that the network is based on open commercial 3GPP-based standards, which are the same standards applicable to commercial 4G LTE networks. FirstNet also insists that its network was always intended to be a single, nationwide network, not a "network of networks" as proposed by BRETSA and others.
Indeed, FirstNet went through a lengthy process with states that it called an opt-in process, but Hallbach said that didn’t mean states that opted in had to move to FirstNet. “This is still a vibrantly competitive marketplace,” she said, noting T-Mobile’s recent moves in the market.
While interoperability attempts were going on before the September 11, 2001, attacks, that event rallied efforts for interoperability in public safety networks so that officers and others responding to emergencies could speak or communicate with one another even when they’re in different agencies or geographies. FirstNet eventually was developed to address that need, but Verizon was working on interoperability years ahead of the creation of FirstNet, Bratton said.
“What Verizon was seeking to do from its inception was try to design systems that were not silos,” with a range of interoperability, he added.
AT&T points out that Verizon didn’t submit a bid during the FirstNet RFP process. "To their surprise, FirstNet has been a success and they’re worried about losing market share," an AT&T spokesman told Fierce via email. "They are using this BRETSA filing as a final Hail Mary. This doesn’t change the fact that they were not – and still are not – willing to build their network to public safety’s requirements and subject themselves to the federal government’s scrutiny and accountability. They can’t have their cake and eat it too."
5G for first responders
The FirstNet network initially is LTE. However, speaking on a FierceWireless 5G Blitz Week panel last week, AT&T’s SVP of Wireless Technology Igal Elbaz said they're in the process of updating FirstNet to 5G.
At Verizon, its 5G First Responder Lab in Washington, D.C., serves as a place for startups and others to develop, test and refine solutions for public safety. While they’re examining a range of solutions, video is one of those things that’s in high demand, and the amount of data that officers need to review in certain situations can be mind boggling.
During and after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, for example, it took days to analyze all the footage that came in, but if that kind of analysis can be done in a matter of hours, that could make a big difference in tracking down suspects, Hallbach said. That’s something that can be achieved using Multi-Access Edge Computing (MEC) technology. Verizon plans to have 10 MEC sites up this year.
A lot of the video is coming from social media and end users observing different angles of an event. That requires a significant amount of computational horse power, she said. Backhauling all that video into a centralized public cloud becomes very difficult, so it makes sense to have the video analytics at the edge of the network to increase the speed of the analysis and response.