Andy Seybold’s Public Safety Advocate, February 2, 2017

Last week’s Public Safety Advocate post was one of the most widely read in the past six months and the input I have been receiving is all positive. Obviously, I did not expect to hear from FirstNet or its CTO and certainly not any of those who submitted a bid in response to the FirstNet RFP. However, I did receive many responses from first responders, vendors, and elected officials, both in this country and elsewhere. So, I have to conclude there is interest not only in when FirstNet will become real but also in how it will serve the Public Safety community.

Therefore, this week’s Advocate will take a look at another portion of the FirstNet system: the device side. Different devices will be used by executives, administrators, top-ranking officials, and down through the ranks to those with their feet on the ground serving the American public. In particular, the points I hope to make are that this is not a one-size-fits-all market and there are significant differences in some aspects of the types of devices that need to be developed for those in the field versus those who serve in administrative positions.

Each classification will probably have different device requirements, and many Public Safety personnel are already carrying two devices, their two-way or Land Mobile Radio (LMR), and their wireless broadband or cell phone device. Some of the cell phones are issued by a city or county and some belong to the personnel themselves and are used in their down time to stay in touch, and even sometimes during incidents to gather more information. So the question is when FirstNet is up and running and has proved itself to the Public Safety community, will the Public Safety community simply stop using their LMR devices in favor of their FirstNet devices?

That would, of course, be every elected city, county, and state official’s ultimate goal since that would mean they could get rid of most of their communications staff, mothball their LMR systems, and move into the future of broadband communications for every Public Safety requirement. There are many reasons this will not become a reality for a very long time, if ever, and if it does, are the community of elected and appointed officials and Public Safety willing to bet their lives and the lives of their citizens on only one network?

Back to devices. Today’s land mobile radios and broadband cell phones are used in very different ways. The first thing anyone wanting to enter into the Public Safety FirstNet device market needs to do is to look at how LMR devices are used today and how much flexibility they give to Public Safety personnel. Vehicle-mounted land mobile radios are used in most first responder vehicles and today there is usually also a notebook, laptop, or tablet that makes use of a commercial broadband network such as AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, or Verizon. However, at least for now, there are significant differences in the operational characteristics of these two forms of communications.

Most of the new FirstNet-capable devices will be body worn by those in the field and therefore they must be usable in a manner that enables instant access and acknowledges what I consider to be the most important attribute for these devices, one-handed operation. Look at those in the field today. In most cases they wear a handheld radio on their belt or in a pocket of their turn-out gear and it is connected to a speaker/microphone that is worn near the shoulder. This enables quick and easy ONE-HANDED operation of the unit. One hand pushes the push-to-talk button and the person simply talks into the microphone. After the transmission, the device becomes a speaker up near the ear of the person so he/she can easy hear the response or any other traffic.

One of the things that is different between a handheld radio and a land mobile radio is that with the land mobile radio the user must change channels when required during an incident. The FirstNet device’s “channels” are controlled by the network. However, even the changing of channels is normally accomplished with a single hand and usually without looking at the device. In order to change channels the user reaches down to the rotary switch on top of the radio and counts the clicks to indicate what channel he/she is switching to. If the user is unsure, he/she turns the knob back to the stop (channel 1) and then counts forward. As a point of trivia, the reason most land mobile radios today have groups of 16 channels is that when Motorola began building multiple-channel radios, a 16-channel switch was the most it could find that fit on the unit.

Field personnel have one-handed access to their radio, and can keep the other hand free in case they need to protect themselves. Just after FirstNet was formed, I was shown a new mockup of a FirstNet radio by a proud vendor. The unit looked much like an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy and had a card reader mounted to the top. They told me a police officer could stop a motorist, walk up to the car, and swipe the driver’s license with the unit, saving themselves a trip back to their own vehicle. Being the blunt person I am, my response was, that is a dead cop! One-handed operation is a must-have for any device that will be used in the field by those engaged in an incident.

On some handheld devices’ speaker/mics you will also see an antenna mounted on top of the unit. This makes the transmission and reception of radio calls better in areas with marginal coverage. Many handheld radios still have their antenna mounted on the radio itself, it simply depends on the portion of the spectrum where the radio operates. All of today’s handheld broadband cell radios except the Sonim unit and perhaps one other, have internal antennas. The antenna is the most important part of any device used in the field. Even handheld radio antennas mounted on the radio are not as good as an antenna mounted on a vehicle, but they are a whole lot better than an antenna mounted inside a broadband device’s case.

If FirstNet is to attract first responders in any numbers, it will be based on three things: coverage provided by the network, types of devices available and at what cost, and applications that will run on the network and the devices. In the world of commercial wireless, it took years to bring these three items into alignment but when they were all brought together (by Apple in this case), we saw the dawn of a huge growth in wireless network customers. I believe FirstNet’s adoption will be based on the same three aspects of the network. The advantage for FirstNet and first responders is that broadband-capable devices and applications are plentiful. Now we need the devices to be tailored to those who will be using them.

Last week I talked about the coming of 5G small cell technologies and other aspects of wireless broadband that can be of great value to first responders. However, there is also a downside. Typically, Public Safety keeps their LMR devices in service for many years while the broadband public trades up to a new device with more capabilities about every eighteen months. The Public Safety community will have a difficult time replacing field devices even if they are less expensive than the land mobile radios they are using just as often. Devices will need to be upgraded when enhancements to LTE are released, when new 5G spectrum is allocated and put into service, and for many other reasons. There were rumors Motorola (Lenovo) and Google were working on devices where portions could be changed out but the devices themselves do not have to be replaced. Potential FirstNet device vendors might want to look into this.

I believe we will see many different innovative types of devices becoming available as FirstNet is rolled out. One of the issues, of course, is that commercial broadband phones sell in the millions and some FirstNet devices will sell only in the thousands. Administrators who opt for an industry standard smartphone will have many choices. Since FirstNet’s system will be used on a secondary basis by commercial customers, adding band 14 to new smartphones makes sense and will be easy. However, tablets and handheld devices that can withstand the harsh Public Safety environment will, unfortunately, cost more. The trick will be to build devices that can remain in service for longer periods of time.

I have, in the past two years, also seen combination devices that provide both LMR and broadband services on a single unit. I hope some of these find their way into the market because I think they can provide the best of both worlds for the Public Safety community. To recap, I see a new standard for smartphones with band 14 on board, tablets that can be mounted in vehicles but easily removed for incident command, and handhelds that can be used with one hand when needed, and can provide access to the types of information those in the field will require.

One last observation. Today’s commercial devices with internal, non-removable batteries are okay for administrators who are not involved in incidents but regardless of the battery life of a device, more will be required at some point in time. Providing removable batteries as well as battery cases that can hold AA batteries is a good idea. I spent time at wildland fires driving to vehicles on the fire line and dropping off cases of AA batteries so the handheld radios could continue operating during the incident. Battery life is not only for an eight-hour shift, it could be for a lot longer when in the field.

The greatest deterrent to having a wide choice of devices is, of course, the smaller quantities. However, I am hopeful that as more countries roll out LTE for first responders the demand for devices will increase and we will see some really inventive products hit the market. If we want FirstNet first responder broadband networks to succeed, we will need to convince device vendors that this is an important market to be a part of. Perhaps FirstNet could take a page out of Motorola’s play book from many years ago. When CB radios were the rage and Motorola was entering that market late, its ad campaign was almost perfect. The tag line was, “Want to know what CB radio to purchase? Look in a police car!”  Andrew Seybold

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