FirstNet’s first steps

FirstNet’s first steps

When talking about the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), a common theme emerges: time. Some early testers of the planned multibillion-dollar nationwide network say there’s not enough of it, while critics ask why the it's taking so long to get the system up and running.

Tips and Tricks

Advice from several Early Builder project planners:

  • Plan far in advance.
  • Create a solid team, including vendors, local jurisdictions and representatives from multiple public safety disciplines.
  • Be specific about what you want to test -- a response or a technology, for example.
  • Work with the Federal Communications Commission and FirstNet early to obtain a Special Temporary Authorization, which is the permission to use the spectrum.
  • Have a plan for how to use the system that addresses immediate needs, but also future and potential ones.
  • Put special emphasis on customer service and onsite support, which are absolutely critical for promoting end-user adoption.

Four years after the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act created FirstNet as an independent government authority to provide communication services for public safety, the agency is preparing to award a contract in early November.

“For a procurement of this scope and scale that’s never been tried before, we’ve gone as fast as we possibly could,” FirstNet CTO Jeff Bratcher said. “We’ve chosen the objective approach for the request for proposals as opposed to [issuing specific] requirements,” he said. That allowed industry “to do what they do best, and that is innovate and bring solutions for public safety and first responders that will meet their needs.”

Ahead of the award, GCN looks at FirstNet’s five Early Builder projects for lessons learned. Each Early Builder project signed a Spectrum Manager Lease Agreement that lets it access the public safety spectrum in the 700 MHz band. Focusing different aspects of first responder use, the projects will help FirstNet evaluate technical standards and capabilities, test new equipment and refine plans for future rollouts.

“We’ve been really pleased with the interaction and collaboration we’ve had with each of the five projects, and it’s really gone a long ways in helping develop our RFP,” Bratcher said. “We’ve learned a lot.”

Adams County, Colo., Communications Center (Adcom911)

Adams County, close to FirstNet technical headquarters in Boulder, was an Early Builder success story when it launched an LTE network in 2014. The county has run several tests since then. One evaluated video surveillance, situational awareness and photo applications during the 2015 International Ski Federation’s Alpine World Ski Championship in Vail.  Participants were able to use push to talk (PTT), view enhanced video surveillance from five cameras on Band Class 14, upload photos and conduct situational awareness and mapping.

But preparing the 35 ruggedized Sonim Technologies devices and 200 personal ones used in the demo took time, said Brian Shepherd, broadband program manager at the Governor’s Office of Information Technology.

“I think the biggest thing we’d like to have done differently is have more time,” Shepherd said. “The technology we’re using in terms of mobile data -- it’s really a paradigm shift for first responders, and setting up the technology is almost as important as using the technology.”

For another test, the county collaborated with Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) to set up hunter safety checkpoints. Like the Vail demo, it took place in rural areas with little to no connectivity. Participants used wireless, ruggedized handheld devices on the Band Class 14 network to scan radio frequency identification tags, query and enter information into databases in real time.

“We would have done more things from a networking approach if we’d had more time,” said Kim Coleman Madsen, broadband implementation manager at the office. “Another thing -- again related to time -- is really being able to sit down with the users and understand their operational requirements and tailor the pilot or demonstration network to meet those operational requirements.”

Also, a live video feed would have made it easier for officials to find those hunters avoiding the checkpoint, Madsen added.

Creating those real-time databases was more difficult than the team expected. “From the back end, there’s a lot more moving parts to this -- the data and cellular communications -- than there is to voice communications,” Shepherd said.  "So I think it’s just getting used to that idea that instead of two or three moving parts, we’ve got five or six moving parts."

Los Angeles Regional Interoperable Communications System (LA-RICS)

The LA-RICS project aims to make a large region less reliant on commercial infrastructure. Earlier this year, the system proved itself during the 2016 Tournament of Roses Parade when planners taxed the $154.6 million LA-RICS network with 90 handheld devices, eight fixed cameras, six mobile cameras as well as video and situational awareness applications. According to FirstNet, service was two to three times faster than that of the commercial networks at the height of the parade.

LA-RICS Interim Executive Director John Radeleff also pointed to the successful deployment of the LTE system during the West Hollywood Halloween Parade, which attracts about 250,000 revelers. “Dispatchers were able to guide paramedic personnel to a patient in the crowd by using the live video from cameras along the route,” he said in an email.

Still, LA-RICS has faced some obstacles. Provisioning devices, for example, has been an issue, Radeleff said. “The installation of routers has proven challenging due to the vast size of the public safety fleet in this region,” he said. “Additionally, the type of antennas varied according to vehicle type in addition to the need to ‘map’ the wiring for the various electronic configurations found in vehicles. Installation templates should be developed for widespread mounting of vehicle [Public Safety Broadband Network] routers.”

Also, acquiring dual-band portable devices and [managing] user applications coming from multiple sources have been tough, he added. “While an effort is under way to establish a ‘standard’ (such as APCO P-25 for [land mobile radio, or LMR] systems), many of the applications do not currently recognize user devices operating on opposing applications.”

Harris County, Texas

The two main goals of the demo during the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and the World Championship BBQ Cook-off, which attracted about 2.5 million people between Feb. 25 and March 20, were to move administrative traffic from the single LMR channel to the Rodeo Security committee and to improve situational awareness. The Harris County Sheriff’s Office and Houston Police Department used the system to share person-of-interest bulletins, pictures of missing children, images of counterfeit parking passes and other information.

The county deployed about 120 handheld devices equipped for PTT, situational awareness and information sharing. There were also Wi-Fi hot spots for Apple iPads and laptops running a patient-tracking system. But configuring and reconfiguring the devices and applications took a lot of time, Shing Lin, director of Public Safety Technology Services, said in an email.

The number of devices also presented challenges. “In the future, we will need to leverage a mobile device manager (MDM) solution for configuration management or reduce the number of devices deployed to a more manageable count,” Lin wrote.

Additionally, users said they would prefer hands-free integrated devices that support LMR communications and smartphone functions for information sharing and location services -- rather than having to carry a radio and a data device, Lin added.

“We found that the end users wanted to use the LTE devices with PTT instead of the radio; however, the technology has not yet fully evolved to support mission-critical voice,” Lin said. “Appropriate expectations should be set if PTT is to be used over LTE. The most success we had with PTT was for teams that were able to communicate with each other about non-emergency information specific to their group (administrative, logistics, etc.) which significantly reduced traffic on the main security channel.”

New Jersey’s JerseyNet

JerseyNet’s effort focused on cells on wheels (COW) and systems on wheels equipped with microwave backhaul and Mutualink interoperable communications technology to support existing communications or provide them where nodes are not functioning. Officials put JerseyNet to the test last year during concerts in Atlantic City. The city’s police department and the state Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness created a dedicated broadband network to let first responders communicate even when commercial systems overloaded.

The police department connected trailer-mounted surveillance cameras to JerseyNet to share data between field resources and officers at the command center, as well as across the network to agencies like the New Jersey State Police and emergency medical service providers. These agencies were able to receive the information and videos via workstations and mobile devices using Mutualink’s interoperable communications technology, which provided a bridge between Band 14 and commercial networks.

"This was the first time during a large, densely populated event that we were able to maintain a constant real-time video stream, and this vastly improved the situational awareness for everyone involved with securing these events,” said Lieutenant James A. Sarkos of the  Atlantic City Police Department.

New Mexico Public Safety LTE Network

This state’s FirstNet effort centers on a system with six fixed sites and a COW that looks at the southern border with Mexico. It uses Adams County as its host core network, meaning the sites are remotely monitored and managed from Adcom in Colorado.

During the 2015 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta (AIBF), the state tapped the General Dynamics 4G LTE Deployable Network. That COW let all law enforcement officials see in real time where public safety officers were located on a map of the festival’s massive field. End users carried ruggedized Sonim Technologies smartphones preloaded with the PTT application, ESChat by SLA Corp., and a situational awareness application from Intrepid called Stinger.

“Local first responders, with no or limited professional exposure to or training in the technology, quickly ‘personalized’ it and were asking for access for their current applications and devices,” according to a state report on the lessons learned. “The success of this demonstration centered on two things: 1) the power and determination of the partnership, and 2) the ability to tap into existing assets. …This network would not have been possible without utilizing the existing state of New Mexico Early Builder Network, local government assets and the private partnerships and relationships created to build and provide the necessary devices and applications for the AIBF.”

Editor's note: This article was changed Sept. 28 to correct the spelling of Mutualink and clarify the explanation of its technology.


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