FirstNet CTO optimistic for smartphone partnerships

BOULDER, Colo. -- According to FirstNet's acting Chief Technology Officer Jeff Bratcher, the organization "would love" iPhones to support the network's Band 14 spectrum, but says implementing the technology is a "chicken and egg discussion."

"The device manufacturers really won't put a frequency band in unless they have the volume of quantity needed to support that," Bratcher continued. "Because it's limited space on all our phones."

The lack of Band 14-capable devices then makes it more difficult to promote the band, as users have limited options to choose from, many of which don't meet the myriad requirements needed by first responders.

In addition to communicating via walkie-talkies, radios and other specialized public safety gear, Bratcher said FirstNet is already seeing first responders across the country utilizing iPhones and other smartphones to capture photos, video and audio during incidents.

Bratcher said a Washington state first responder "sent us a video of one of the recent big fires they had up there, and you can see all the firefighters. They pull out their existing smartphones and were filming and using those. So from our experience and engagement with public safety, they all use commercial devices just like everyone else."

In addition to potential Band 14 in first responders' existing devices, the devices used to access FirstNet's network will include things like mobile communications units, or what FirstNet is now referring to as "vehicular network systems," which are tethered to a vehicle and provide Band 14 to nearby devices. Additionally, Bratcher said the organization is looking to make use of small cells, dongles, femtocells and picocells, among other options.

Ultimately, though, the device outcome will hinge heavily on what public safety responders say they need in order to respond to incidents. FirstNet's Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC), which is made up of more than 40 public safety officials, is offering suggestions to drive the best possible outcome.

"Our technical team, specifically our device team, has been working closely with the PSAC executive committee on device feedback and device input from the public safety community," Bratcher said.

And, like many other aspects of the network, FirstNet's device choices hang in the balance until the organization's final Request for Proposals (RFP) is published at the end of the year.

"There's no one driving [Band 14] usage yet, and it doesn't make sense to put that in if there's no one to use it yet," Bratcher said. "So we're really hoping our RFP will help drive that, and we'll get to that scale, you know, quantity of scale needed to put it into the big devices."

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