In connecting public safety, FirstNet also innovates on LTE - and eyes 5G

A first responder uses communication technology that may comply with FirstNet in the future. Source: FirstNet

As FirstNet works to release its final Request for Proposals by the end of this year, attention will soon turn to how FirstNet plans to roll out its LTE network for U.S. public-safety workers, and how it will keep that network up to date with changing standards and devices.

According to CTO Jeff Bratcher, FirstNet's network will be on-board with the latest LTE innovations from the outset, accommodating present standards and anticipating future innovations from the nation's commercial carriers. Keeping pace will be necessary as FirstNet -- created to solve the communication interoperability problems among public-safety officials first uncovered during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks -- tries to ensure a fast, reliable network for emergency services.


"Commercial [wireless carriers] are using Release 9 and 10" of the 3GPP's LTE standard, said Bratcher, which means that FirstNet will probably use the same standards when it launches its network. However, he said that specifics won't be available until FirstNet chooses a commercial carrier partner sometime in 2016.

By using the same 3GPP Release 9 and 10 LTE standards as commercial carriers like AT&T, Verizon and Sprint and T-Mobile, FirstNet will be able to cash in on the same equipment that has already been developed for commercial wireless LTE networks. Further, FirstNet is expected to partner with a commercial wireless carrier to monetize and build out its network, and analysts are pointing to Verizon as FirstNet's most likely partner, thanks to Verizon's national reach and its vast 700 MHz spectrum holdings.

In the meantime, Bratcher said, FirstNet is doing everything it can to stay abreast of fluctuating standards, especially as LTE continues to evolve. FirstNet is keeping tabs on the 3GPP and has a standards team working closely with the standards body to make sure FirstNet is "plugged in" and that the 3GPP is aware of FirstNet's needs and requirements.

Once FirstNet releases its RFP, contractors will then be able to submit proposals to build the organization's nationwide, $7 billion, 700 MHz LTE network that police, firefighters and other first responders will be able to use to communicate with each other and others. The result will hopefully be a state-of-the-art nationwide wireless network that will support text, voice and video communications among all emergency responders.

FirstNet works with 3GPP on existing and new LTE standards

"We are pushing within 3GPP," Bratcher said. "We now have a lot of traction for mission-critical, push-to-talk capabilities." And the partnership between FirstNet and the 3GPP is not without justification, according to one analyst.

"It's essential," said Ken Rehbehn, of 451 Research. "FirstNet needs to be aligned with global standards, and clearly FirstNet must keep an eye on the evolution of 5G."


And rather than simply comply with existing standards, Bratcher is optimistic that FirstNet's needs could go so far as to influence the development of future LTE standards. Indeed, that's already happening, Bratcher said, as evidenced by FirstNet's success in moving push-to-talk technology into the 3GPP's discussions.

"FirstNet has already had a significant influence on the standards required for the network," Rehbehn said, referring to elements like priority and pre-emption that are critical for FirstNet's function. The priority and pre-emption features in LTE would allow first responders to access the FirstNet network ahead of other users, like citizens roaming onto the FirstNet network, in the event of an emergency.

Rehbehn said global influence is the next big thing for FirstNet.

"What's significant is that now the U.S. is not alone. Other nations are moving toward public-safety LTE standards," Rehbehn added.

According to Bratcher, countries like Canada and South Korea, along with the United Kingdom, are now implementing LTE-based public-safety networks. And that trend could put public safety in general, and FirstNet specifically, in a driver's seat in the creation of new technologies like 5G.

Further, Bratcher hopes public safety's LTE push will also influence device innovation as well. Bratcher is hoping that smartphone vendors like Apple will include FirstNet's Band 14 700 MHz spectrum in their upcoming smartphones, a move that would increase the number of devices that first responders could use.

Innovation could be a part of FirstNet's rollout

But that's just the beginning. Bratcher is hopeful that the FirstNet LTE network will spark the development of new devices, applications and services for first responders and others. For example, a FirstNet video hints at personal devices that could automatically alert first responders to a car accident -- without the need for human reporting.

Bratcher added that the creation of a first responders' network could egg on app developers to create applications specifically for public safety. In fact, he said, some first responders are already doing just that themselves.

"There's firefighters, police officers, [a] younger generation of the first responders that are making their own apps," Bratcher said. "I mean, there are apps out there. APCO is the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials, [which] points to a lot of these public safety-specific apps off their website that are in development now. So we know it's there and they're definitely expecting this, since growing up with the technology, that it can be used going forward."

"The creation of a network dedicated to public safety opens up the opportunity for applications and devices," Rehbehn said. "The challenge is that the market is not very large, and the investment of the private sector to meet emergency responders will be tempered by potential revenue opportunities."

That may be where FirstNet's pull comes in for more specialized devices, including mobile units mounted in emergency response vehicles, as well as public safety-focused femtocells and picocells. Some of these devices may come about through partnerships with vendors like Nokia, whose public-safety experts declined to give more detail, citing their involvement in procurement plans with FirstNet.

"It's really going to depend on the duties of the first responders," Bratcher said of such tools. First responders "all have different capabilities and things they have to do as part of their jobs. So we've got a broad device ecosystem plan in our RFP for all different kinds of vehicle modems, smartphones, dongles and small cell-type applications."

Bratcher and Rehbehn both alluded to a chicken-and-egg problem -- Band 14-capable devices don't exist because of a lack of demand, which in turn is perpetuated due to the lack of available devices. But Bratcher said he's confident the issue will work itself out, and that once it does first responders won't want to look back.

"The World Ski Championships in February were held up in Vail [Colo.]. So they actually used Band 14 from one of the vendors as a demo system and everyone using it loved it because all the other commercial networks were so congested," Bratcher explained. "Once [the responders] have access to it and it works, and they don't have to worry about anything else on the network and they have their own bandwidth, it's amazing how quickly they'll pick it up and want to start using it."

"This is going to advance, in an evolutionary way, the way firefighters and first responders do their work," added FirstNet CTO Chief of Staff Jordan Andrews. "And basically the improvement in services that you will see as a citizen will be remarkable. And it's kind of like, nobody can see it because it's not there yet."

Added Andrews: "You have to kind of take a Steve Jobs-like vision: 'Okay, you don't know that you want this. You don't know that this is going to change the way things are done.' But it will, and once it's out, you'll be like, 'How did we ever live without this?'"

In connecting public safety, FirstNet also innovates on LTE - and eyes 5G