Now that all 56 U.S. states and territories have opted in to FirstNet, the country has taken a monumental step toward the goal of a nationwide broadband LTE network dedicated to first responders.
It’s an exciting time to consider the impact on the future of 911 communications. The power of FirstNet means first responders will have the kinds of technology in their hands that most consumers take for granted: real-time transmission of voice and data, high-speed service and precise location capabilities, to name a few.
All first responders across the country – police, fire, EMS – are set to benefit from the technological advances of FirstNet, and here’s a closer look at what that could mean for the future.
The First Days of FirstNet
Congress created the First Responder Network Authority, or FirstNet, in February 2012 “to establish a nationwide broadband network for public safety.” With FirstNet, rural and underserved communities will get solutions that work for them, no matter how remote.
Creation of the network was the final recommendation of the 9/11 Commission to connect police officers, firefighters and EMS providers and ensure as close to universal interoperability as possible.
The authority is led by a 15-member board with representatives from government, public safety and the wireless industry.
‘Landmark Day’ for Public Safety
In the spring of 2017, a giant step forward for FirstNet was the announcement of a public-private partnership with AT&T to build the $46.5 billion dedicated broadband network.
In announcing the deal at the International Wireless Communications Expo (IWCE) in Las Vegas, U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross called it “a landmark day for public safety across the country.”
Under the 25-year agreement, AT&T will build, deploy, operate and maintain the network, and FirstNet is on the hook to provide 20 MHz of high-value wireless spectrum. Motorola will provide mobile apps, software and services as part of its role on the AT&T team.
Governors in all 56 U.S. states and territories were given the option to “opt-in” or “opt-out” of the Radio Access Network (RAN) buildout plan proposed by FirstNet. Opting-in meant allowing AT&T to build the LTE network within the state at no cost, while opting-out would have required states to build and maintain the RAN for the next 25 years.
Before Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner announced the state’s opt-in on Dec. 18, 2017, the Illinois FirstNet project team completed outreach planning sessions in 80 counties and presented at various state conferences over 18 months, reaching more than 3,000 emergency responders, according to Bill Springer, an Illinois FirstNet System Architect.
All 50 states have opted in, as have the District of Columbia, the territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam and American Samoa.
Public Safety-Grade Durability
One of the most anticipated elements of FirstNet is the 5G data network that will allow mission-critical information to be shared across personnel and agencies at lightning speeds.
Once the new network is implemented, first responders’ communications will be given priority during emergencies. Public safety agencies will be given pre-emption authority to ensure their ability to keep in touch is never compromised by consumer traffic.
FirstNet will provide a reinforced public safety network that’s built to withstand a range of natural and man-made disasters. For weather-related emergencies, plans call for network hardening that’s specific to the vulnerabilities of each region of the country: earthquakes in the west, hurricanes or super storms in the east, tornadoes in the Midwest.
Infrastructure improvements include strengthening cell tower sites, as well as providing back-up equipment and services.
Cyber security controls are also being developed to protect against threats that are impossible to see and more difficult to combat. Firewalls will enforce strict security policies that are being established with the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Defense.
Public Safety Communications 2.0
Here are some scenarios that experts have imagined in the hopefully not-too-far-away future of public safety communications:
- Firefighters arriving on a scene are able to download the plans and layout of a building before going inside.
- First responders can remotely access detailed descriptions of the chemicals they may encounter on-site at an emergency.
- Officers use their tablets, laptops, cameras or other devices to write tickets or record video, then immediately transmit the data from their squad cars to dispatch or a central location.
- In Illinois, instead of having to call in to dispatch to have a license plate number or other information checked against the Law Enforcement Agencies Data System (LEADS), officers out on patrol access the system themselves from their mobile radios, two-way radios or ruggedized tablets.
- Bar code scanners with apps such as LPR (License Plate Recognition) shorten the identification process even more.
- First responders use their devices to access real-time traffic information to determine the best route to an emergency.
- Public safety agencies are outfitted with wearable sensors similar to fitness trackers or high-tech headsets like Google Glass, as well as cameras.
- Drones and robots equipped with cameras deliver images of fires, floods or crimes in near real-time.
FirstNet-Ready Devices and Accessories
One of the major benefits of FirstNet is that it gives public safety users access to a large catalog of LTE devices, ranging from ruggedized units to the most popular smart devices and tablets in the world, as well as related accessories.
FirstNet will also offer the opportunity for Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) capabilities for volunteers and other support personnel who use their personal devices for their public safety work, assuming they meet the relevant requirements.
In addition, Motorola Solutions’ LEX F10 device, which was designed specifically for public safety, has been certified for the AT&T LTE network. Motorola will also deliver a suite of mobile apps, such as mapping and messaging, built specifically for public safety. The suite will work seamlessly between the FirstNet network and land mobile radio networks (LMR).
Getting Ready for the Future
While it’s inspiring to dream about all of the technology that’s on the horizon for police departments, the reality can be far less high-tech for many agencies that are grappling with budgetary concerns.
As agencies wait for the future to arrive, there are steps that can be taken to prepare and be better positioned for the next generation of technology, even on a tight budget. And it's an interesting time to look back at the history of two-way radio communication to see how far we've truly come.
To maintain quality on a budget, here are some ideas to keep in mind:
- Start to phase out legacy analog systems. Agencies don’t have to replace their entire radio fleet all at once, and many of today’s digital devices will work with analog, too, to allow time for a gradual shift.
- Try out second-hand equipment that’s new to you. Departments undergoing upgrades or dispatch center consolidation may have equipment they’re no longer using that they’re looking to sell.
- Take steps to lengthen the life of your radios and batteries. Have radios serviced at least every two years and make sure you're using the correct batteries and accessories with the radio you're using.