2017-08-22 | Ken Rehbehn | founder, Critical Communications Insights

APCO 2017 Conference Take-Aways

Analyst Ken Rehbehn discusses the take aways from the busy APCO 2017 event. Rehbehn discusses the role of AT&T, competition by Verizon, PTT over LTE interoperability and the LTE/Project 25 hardened LMR portable.

APCO International wrapped up its annual conference and exhibition that tackled issues facing agencies fielding the nation's 9-1-1 communications operations. This event brings together various stakeholders in the 9-1-1 community and this year's event is the first since FirstNet signed a 25-year contract with AT&T to deliver on the promise of a national public safety broadband network (NPSBN). In this watershed year, what can we take away from the busy APCO 2017 event?

  • AT&T settles into its role as FirstNet partner. Now that state comments are in hand following the state plan review period, AT&T is working with FirstNet to develop responses addressing the state's requirements. AT&T VP Jim Bugel observed that comments touched a set of common themes, including coverage needs, interoperability questions and NG 9-1-1. He pointed to an enthusiastic response from public safety leaders as these officials come to realize that they now have a say in where sites appear. Unfortunately, AT&T continues to side-step questions regarding Band 14 deployment. As the company stated in recent Senate testimony, it will deploy Band 14 as further capacity is required. Failure to quickly build a universal Band 14 network raises potential interoperability risks in the event of any state opt-out.
  • Verizon injects the prospect of competing for state opt-out opportunities. Verizon is the market leader for public safety LTE today, but it elected to not bid on the FirstNet partnership. Since the FirstNet award, Verizon has largely remained publicly silent on state opt-out ambitions. An FCC filing on the question of core network interoperability broke the silence, and at APCO 2017 the company publicly stated its aim to seek state opt-out opportunities. If Verizon hosts at least one radio access network -- with or without the FirstNet core network -- then Band 14 access across the AT&T footprint becomes a much higher priority for FirstNet. This issue is not just about states that opt-out. Verizon's Michael Maiorana, Senior Vice President of Public Sector Markets for Verizon Enterprise Solutions, said the company would continue to serve their public safety customers while expanding the offer with wireless priority, dual band devices and interworking solutions for LMR. He pointed to differentiating advantages that come with its coverage footprint, reliability and capacity. Clearly, Verizon does not plan to yield its customers to FirstNet/AT&T without a fight.
  • Push-to-talk over LTE interoperability progress. A striking demonstration at the Mutualink booth showed the company's collaboration system successfully inter-working with LTE PTT clients from Motorola Solutions, Nemergent and ESChat. Integration of LTE PTT client interfaces is in addition to Mutualink's existing Project 25 inter-working. The result is a rich collaboration experience between users coming from different jurisdictions using a variety of devices over disparate networks. The demonstration highlights the power flexibility offered by SIP-based voice communications. Of note, the Nemergent PTT client was tested during the ETSI mission-critical push to talk (MCPTT) Plugtest event.
  • Harris brings the world's first full-function LTE/Project 25 hardened LMR portable. In an ideal world, mission critical LTE networks would replace legacy analog and trunked public safety networks. The reality, however, is that trunked networks will remain a vital foundation of public safety operations due to shortcomings in LTE protocols and LTE user equipment power limitations. A hardened public safety portable radio supporting multiple radio technologies, however, helps bridge the old and new. Harris now has just such a unit, the commercially available LTE/Project 25 XL-200P. The device, now with more than 20,000 units shipped, provides a multi-technology access capability that adapts to the ideal radio access network without the end user having to be aware of the details. The system works simply, attaching to LTE if available or, if needed, Wi-Fi or Project 25. Designed with Verizon and Band 14 support, the portable gives agencies an easy path to transition from Project 25 to LTE. Beyond voice support, what stands out is a flexible Wi-Fi tethering mode provided for connecting devices such as tablets or printers. Police Departments gain the best of both worlds: familiar hardened MCPTT terminals coupled with rich end user application interfaces hosted on tablets, all operating over a single LTE subscription.

There is no shortage of challenges facing the public safety communications sector over the next year. For sure, FirstNet and AT&T will sharply accelerate efforts between now and the APCO 2018 conference. To a certain extent, establishing the radio access and a trusted FirstNet core network is the easy part. The steeper challenge, though, will be delivering on the promise of an agile application ecosystem underpinned by rigorous security but open to creative efforts by non-traditional developers. That win, when it arrives, will be the real fulfillment of the FirstNet vision.