VoLTE is essential for Los Angeles public-safety network

Tammy Parker, FierceBroadbandWirelessVoLTE must be viewed as a critical component of the nationwide public safety broadband network (NPSBN) that will be designed and built out by the First Responders Network Authority. If you don't believe me, just ask LA-RICS.

LA-RICS, which certainly rolls off the tongue more easily than the Los Angeles Regional Interoperable Communications System Authority, in June became the first BTOP grantee to approve a FirstNet spectrum-lease agreement. There were initially seven jurisdictions that received grants to deploy LTE-based 700 MHz networks under the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), only to see the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) halt further funding after FirstNet was created.

Now that it has signed the spectrum-lease agreement, LA-RICS was notified last Sunday that NTIA has lifted the partial suspension of $154.6 million in federal grant monies for the 232-site LA SafetyNet LTE network. Not only can LA-RICS move full steam ahead to deploy the public-safety project, it has more time to do so because its grant performance period was extended to September 2015.

John Lenihan, battalion chief of the Los Angeles County Fire Department, and LA-RICS Executive Director Pat Mallon appeared before the FirstNet board Tuesday to discuss LA SafetyNet. The Los Angeles area network is slated to provide communications for more than 34,000 first responders and 17,000 secondary responders, such as public works staff that might assist in an emergency situation.

While the NPSBN is at its heart an interoperable data-sharing platform for public safety, Lenihan and Mallon emphasized that LA SafetyNet desperately needs functional VoLTE capability as well.

Prior to passage of the taxpayer relief act in February 2012, which created FirstNet, LA-RICS was working to create a consolidated land mobile radio (LMR) and LTE network, which now must be procured separately. LA-RICS is close to signing a contract for its LMR network, which will use 700 MHz spectrum and UHF, and it issued a separate RFP for LTE equipment on Aug. 13, just two days after its BTOP funds were released. Mallon said LA-RICS anticipates signing a contract for the LTE gear in March 2014.

As noted, the LMR network has some 700 MHz channels it can use for voice communications, but they are inadequate for LA-RICS' mission-critical voice needs. "Going forward, we look to the LTE system as being a way to bring everyone onto one voice path," Lenihan said.

"There is not sufficient spectrum available in the 700 [MHz band] to be able to totally vacate the UHF until we can replace some of the voice-carrying capability with the LTE system. So voice over LTE is a very, very critical component to our success. Without that, we'll be in a really tough position to vacate the T-Band," Mallon said.

The law that created FirstNet also calls for the FCC to begin auctioning UHF T-Band spectrum, located at 470-512 MHz, in February 2021. Los Angeles and other jurisdictions using that spectrum for public safety must cease their LMR operations in the T-Band within two years after the close of the auction.

In response to Lenihan's and Mallow's comments, FirstNet board member Chuck Dowd indicated that VoLTE may not be a top-of-mind capability for FirstNet initially.

"We're not looking to rush anything in terms of mission-critical voice capability. We know LMR's going to be around for a very long time. But ultimately, as we look forward we want to see if we can develop some more sophisticated voice capabilities on this system," said Dowd, who is also assistant chief of the New York City Police Department. New York City also must relocate from T-Band spectrum.  

However, Dowd's fellow FirstNet board member and acting CTO Craig Farrill jumped in to confirm that FirstNet has an active project within its technology research group that will address VoLTE. "We hear you," he said, adding he wanted to reassure LA-RICS that FirstNet understands its need for VoLTE functionality.

Fortunately for LA-RICS and other jurisdictions that must vacate T-Band spectrum, they have about 10 years to accomplish that feat. One would imagine that a decade should be enough time for FirstNet to come up with satisfactory VoLTE solutions for them.--Tammy