Industry Voices—Rehbehn: Does FirstNet matter?

Firefighters public safety firstnet AT&T (FirstNet)
AT&T and FirstNet are building a nationwide wireless network for public-safety first responders like firefighters. (FirstNet)

Nearly a year has passed since AT&T won its contract for a 25-year public/private partnership with the FirstNet Authority. For much of the past year, the partners worked hard to prevent individual states from taking independent paths for network build-outs. In the end, the FirstNet partner's arguments won out, convincing the nation's governors that go-it-alone builds or embracing alternative service providers were less palatable options. As the fight for the governors' decisions wound down, a new—and more important—battle is ramping up: convincing tens of thousands of individual agencies to embrace the FirstNet value proposition.

Putting aside FirstNet boosterism that ramped to a crescendo during the fight for governors' hearts and minds, agencies with long ties to non-AT&T LTE mobile broadband service providers face a difficult business question: Is the AT&T-built FirstNet service offer sufficiently differentiated to trigger a switch from a trusted incumbent service provider?

Adding to the challenge, AT&T and its competitors continue to enhance network capabilities. That said, Verizon's decades-long relationship its public safety customers will play to its advantage when purchasing officials weigh a shift to FirstNet. These cross-currents make for a dynamic environment as agencies contemplate long-term contract decisions.

The question of FirstNet's differentiation goes first to the foundation of mission-critical LTE, support for quality of service, priority and pre-emption. Both AT&T and Verizon Wireless made strides in this area. In 2015, Verizon announced its Private Network Traffic Management (PNTM) offer that includes a service category for public safety. Likewise, AT&T fielded its Dynamic Traffic Management offer that is the basis for the FirstNet capabilities.

Recently, AT&T augmented its FirstNet offer with preemption for primary users. Verizon claims it will offer preemption in the future. Both networks claim to extend QoS, priority and preemption benefits across all bands used by public safety. For a purchasing officer, the differences in QoS, priority and preemption may be hard to discern.

Another important area for differentiation is network coverage and capacity. Each of the service providers have variations in spectrum holdings and cell site facilities across the U.S. Verizon Wireless has maintained a strong leadership position in the public safety sector in areas where its coverage is dependable. To that point, the company claims that its footprint advantage today is more than 400,000 square miles.

But Verizon's differentiation was threatened by aggressive AT&T plans to add new sites in response to state consultations while simultaneously refreshing existing sites. These refresh efforts will swap old 850 MHz radios with modern multiband units that add 700 MHz (Band 14, Band 17) to the mix. For capacity, AT&T is also using the refresh push to inject AWS-3 (Advanced Wireless Service) and WCS (Wireless Communications Service) bands.

Still, Verizon is not going to just stand still. The company has energetic efforts underway to densify its networks to bolster capacity. Again, as both players improve their respective networks, differentiation becomes thin.

A potentially interesting and important area of differentiation involve applications and security. In its contracting efforts, the FirstNet Authority called attention to the need for a rich application ecosystem underpinned by a secure networking environment. To that end, AT&T has established a FirstNet developer program and app store.

Security is also a priority that AT&T FirstNet is addressing with end-to-end encryption over a dedicated core network and a hosted Federated Identity Credential and Access Management (F-ICAM) capability. Today, FirstNet offers a trusted application store stocked with proven solutions. The company is working with developers to ensure new applications arrive leveraging mission-critical push-to-talk network features as well as FirstNet's priority and pre-emption mechanisms.

But the reality is that today's applications—and possibly many of the most compelling future applications—reside on over-the-top cloud infrastructure with acceptable security regimes hosted on trusted government AWS or Azure resources. Application developers crave large global markets and, as a rule, will aim to use the cloud to ensure access to customers beyond the AT&T FirstNet community.

Furthermore, applications that depend on AT&T-specific network APIs will have no appeal beyond the U.S. market. Should the most important applications be available to users of any commercial mobile network, the FirstNet application environment may turn out to be less than compelling—at least for agencies comfortable working in today's cloud environment.

In a standards-based environment, it is not surprising that large, committed players fighting it out in the market place would converge on similar offerings. But there are a number of competitive factors that—over time—promise to turn the tide in AT&T FirstNet's favor:

Mission-critical Push-to-Talk and the need for voice interoperability

While MC-PTT continues to languish due to the lack of workable talk-around options, the technology has major advantages in the long-term as these challenges get addressed. Ultimately, spectrum efficiency and operational flexibility will be the hallmarks of future MC-PTT deployments. The time-sensitive nature of MC-PTT and a requirement for efficient broadcast functionality force all users to a common radio access and core network.

Emergency services workers collaborating at the scene of an incident will need to be on the same network for usable performance that is free from jitter. This means that agencies remaining on a non-FirstNet radio access network will ultimately end up failing to meet voice interoperability requirements that are essential in today's public safety environment.

In-building wireless coverage consistency

For voice communications, the fire code calls for Emergency Responder Radio Coverage (ERRC) systems that deliver public safety land mobile radio (LMR) signals in and out of large structures. Building owners are forced to install these systems to protect emergency workers responding to fires and other incidents. A future shift to MC-PTT requires that these systems support mission-critical LTE. Even before MC-PTT is ready, however, first responder data applications may take on increasing importance and drive a need for early ERRC system support.

Interoperability, again, becomes a key factor as multiagency operations take place inside building structures. To that end, the ideal U.S. public safety spectrum for mission-critical LTE is FirstNet's Band 14. As more local Authority-Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) officials move to add MC-LTE to the ERRC systems, Band 14 is the logical common denominator. As this trend gains steam, the AT&T/FirstNet advantage grows.

Federal mandates that force the hand of local agencies

Today, there is no pressure from the federal government forcing agencies to move to FirstNet. That can change quickly with modifications to federal grant programs that link funds to requirements calling for the FirstNet Federated Identity Credential and Access Management (F-ICAM) capability. By driving a unified F-ICAM, agencies such as DHS and DOJ can foster trusted interagency engagements spanning federal, state and local governments. Is FirstNet's radio network really needed for that? No, but the SIM-based authentication can be positioned as a critical pillar.

Potent federal government backing

It would be hard to overstate the emotional impact created by years of tough fights for the precious Band 14 resource. There are many respected public safety experts now holding positions in the FirstNet Authority and inside AT&T who have dedicated their careers towards making FirstNet not just a reality, but a success. Business is all about relationships, and these experts remain tightly linked to law enforcement, the fire service and the emergency medical services community across the United States. By having these champions in its corner, FirstNet holds a key marketing advantage.

Does FirstNet matter? To be sure, dueling top-tier mobile network operators with outstanding service offers employing the latest 3GPP QOS, priority and pre-emption mechanisms appear to be able to match each other feature-for-feature. If so, the next five years may see some local government agencies remaining with trusted network providers.

That said, the long-term benefits of interoperability that come from a common radio and core network fabric are compelling. Teams from any public safety agency in the U.S. should be able to travel to any distant community and retain full communications functionality. For that end goal, FirstNet truly matters.

Ken Rehbehn is a principal analyst at CritComm Insights who focuses on the evolution of mission-critical LTE and 5G radio technology, services and devices. A longtime firefighter and former paramedic, he tracks the impact of new communications technology on public safety and essential vertical enterprises. Follow him on Twitter at @krehbehn

"Industry Voices" are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by FierceWireless staff. They do not represent the opinions of FierceWireless.