2017-06-29 | Ken Rehbehn

Keeping FirstNet Deployable Options Open

In this Blog, senior Analyst Ken Rehbehn shares his thoughts about what is needed to draw the right conclusion on choosing the FirstNet for Public Safety Broadband Communications.

The arrival of a national public safety mobile broadband network in the US is one step closer with release of state plans to the nation's states and territories. With these plans, AT&T supplies the details around its commitment to each state for coverage, pricing and support. The review period is an important phase because it gives each Governor with a rare opportunity to influence how the FirstNet band 14 spectrum resource delivers value to their respective state. Following the 45 day comment period, FirstNet and AT&T can adjust the offer before starting the final opt-in/opt-out timer.

How Much Deployable Flexibility is Allowed?

Because AT&T FirstNet continues to compete with other mobile network operators for public safety wallet share, the offer's specifics are cloaked behind non-disclosure agreements. That said, the website FirstNet.com supplies a high-level view of the offer and it is clear that large gaps in coverage remain in secluded portions of the nation. In addition, AT&T committed to providing 72 deployable systems for dispatch when needed along with the option for local jurisdictions to add to the deployable inventory with local procurement.

For state and local governments, the ability to dispatch deployable band 14 resources with short lead times is an important communications capability. Complex operations that take shape in wildland fire fighting or mountain rescue need solid connectivity within an hour, not a day. Even in an urban environment, management of a large protest event or a long-running hostage situation can benefit from injection of radio resources at the scene. Clearly, state and local governments will need to supplement the AT&T resources to maintain an adequate deployable inventory as well as to fill pressing coverage gaps.

As state officials evaluate the state plans, attention must be given to the details of deployable acquisition and operation. Plan reviewers must ensure that state commitments describe how radio access nodes are made available for purchase. The issue, however, is not simple. Mobile operators prefer to use a small number of radio access suppliers that are rigorously vetted. For AT&T, its primary macrocellular network suppliers are Ericsson and Nokia. This may mean that state and local governments will face limited choices when securing a deployable node from the regional equipment supplier. But that may not result in the best fit for the local agency.

Leveraging Small Cell Flexibility

Advancements in small cell technology provide for effective self-organizing network (SON) nodes for plug-and-play insertion. Recent techniques for Intercell Interference Coordination (ICIC) aid inject of small cell capacity while protecting surrounding network conditions. As a case in point, Nokia reports success with its Flexi Zone small cell deployments operating as an underlay in Ericsson and Huawei networks around the world. These advancements and deployment successes set the stage for local agencies to consider deployable FirstNet nodes that are well matched -- size, price and functionality -- to community requirements and constraints.

In the multi-year lead-up to the FirstNet contract award, innovative radio access vendors have honed deployable capabilities. With its Nokia Ultra Compact Network, Nokia has blended its feature-rich small cell offer with an integrated EPC to deliver a compact form factor designed for rapid deployment by front-line emergency workers. Parallel Wireless brought a fresh approach towards coverage injection with its Plug-n-Play Bring Your Own Coverage (BYOC) Solution based on the company's Converged Wireless System (CWS) Band 14 LTE eNodeB and embedded EPC with HetNet Gateway (HNG). Redline Communications built on its long experience supplying deployable communications infrastructure to oil, gas, mining and electric utilities to offer a wide range of small cell nodes targeted at Band 14. Tecore Networks extended its proven cellular offer used in government and military markets to embrace the needs of public safety agencies. Motorola Solutions, as well, is moving to offer a deployable LTE radio access node that complements its extensive land mobile network (LMR) offer. The breadth of offers available to agencies is impressive, but AT&T and FirstNet will serve as gatekeepers as new market innovations arrive.

Plan reviewers must ensure that state plan effectively addresses the local options for deployables. Does the master 25 year agreement allow for a variety of deployables? Will a shortlist of vendors be provided? How much choice is available? What is the approval process for interesting new players that bring innovation into the market? What is the process to activate a local deployable on Band 14? As is typical with complex radio systems operating in licensed spectrum, the devil is in the details. But the time to understand and influence these details is now.

Operational Impact

An ample range of deployable options is important because purchasing decisions are made in US communities with a wide variety of requirements. The ability to supplement AT&T nodes with local resources helps inject coverage quickly where it is required. One size does not fit all communities.