Andy Seybold’s Public Safety Advocate, February 9, 2017

FirstNet Applications: Two weeks ago I wrote about the FirstNet network, then last week I wrote about the devices Public Safety will be using or could be using on the FirstNet system. Each of these posts prompted some great comments and some really good questions, all of which I tried to answer. The next piece to the puzzle is the suite of applications that will become available and will provide the types of information, data, and video services that are needed by the Public Safety community. While the applications are one of three very important elements of the network, and some say the most important part, there are still the issues of pricing for devices, pricing for service usage, the amount of data that can be used on the network, and other factors that will all need to be in place when the network becomes ready for prime time.

Applications are the focus of this week’s Advocate but with the caveat that my data sets for both the network and devices are stronger than my data set for applications. Therefore, I will not try to identify the “killer” applications for law enforcement, fire, EMS, inspections, and other field duties, but I will say that applications in all of these categories and more are needed. What I will do is try to provide some insight into the way the applications might be developed and how to have them integrated into the field to provide effective results.

Many departments already have experience with software applications in the field but in most cases it is dispatch to Mobile Data Terminals (MDTs) in a vehicle rather than to a person in the field. Data has been used by Public Safety for a long time. Motorola, MDI, and others offered data devices and services over LMR channels, Panasonic started building wireless data modems into its Toughbooks in the 1990s, and we were working with Public Safety agencies that were making use of RAM Mobile Data, ARDIS, and Cellular Digital Packet Data (CDPD), which AT&T, Bell Atlantic, New England Bell, GTE Mobile Net, and others were pushing (and later Verizon as it rolled up some of the baby bells and others). Data rates were available from 8 Kbps to 19.2 Kbps and departments were using data to send out additional information on dispatched calls and to run license plates and people through the databases.

Today many departments are using LTE broadband services provided by one or more commercial network but again, mostly for dispatch to vehicles and back and not to the person in the field. Moving data capability to the field will require different types of applications including some that will be written by first responders in the field as some of the best ones are today. My advice for any programmer looking at writing an application for Public Safety is to do some ride-alongs on busy nights, and spend time talking to first responders from a variety of types of agencies. I have found that while there are some common types of applications there are also significant differences in the way departments operate in the field. Taking a note out of our early corporate data consulting playbook, the idea was to introduce applications that did not require a big change in the way things were being done, only made them easier. We then found that over time the users themselves were making modifications and changes to the way they do things but these changes were not forced on them, they made the changes over time themselves.

Staying in our early wireless data playbook we learned a few other lessons, sometimes the hard way. A caveat here is that in the 1990s there were no people experienced with data on wireless devices or very few of them. Today the assumption is that everyone is a pro when it comes to smartphones, navigating around in them, and getting applications they want and need loaded and up and running, so perhaps some of this advice will seem old fashioned but I think it still applies. What we learned was that the IT shops within a company that loaded up their first wireless data devices with a lot of apps never won the buy-in of the users. There was confusion, and no one knew how to use any of the applications well. We ended up suggesting that IT shops issue the devices with a single, yet important application on them. This way the user community grew accustomed to the app, became adept at working with it, and then were ready to try other applications. In the companies we worked with that rolled out devices and added apps over time, each was successful with its program.

Another thing to consider. Today if you carry a smartphone it probably has a number of applications on it you never use but that clutter up the screen and perhaps make it difficult to find the few apps you use all of the time. I believe FirstNet field devices should have a limited number of application icons on the screen, only the ones needed to do the job. Perhaps another screen or two with other apps might be helpful but the home window should be fairly sparse so it is both quick and easy to access the needed application.

One class of application that has been around for a while and the the law enforcement community seems to really like are those that enable them to complete their reports in the field and submit them wirelessly, saving a trip to their assigned station and having to sit at a desk. These reporting tools have proven effective and have enabled law enforcement personnel to remain in the field for longer periods of time on their shifts. Fire inspectors have applications they can complete on a tablet and there are many more types of applications. It may be difficult to limit the number of applications on your department’s devices but it makes sense to introduce new applications slowly, and only after those already in use have been mastered.

It appears from what FirstNet has said, including what it published in its RFP for a partner, that it, or someone, will be certifying applications that are compatible with FirstNet and are deemed safe to be added to the network. This brings up a few issues concerning applications developed locally and could be installed without FirstNet testing, and also the issue of applications that might be downloaded by someone in the field who thinks it is a cool app and does not realize it is infected with a virus or malware. I am sure FirstNet, the Partner, and the Public Safety community will come to a series of agreements to deal with these issues but they need to be discussed and solutions put into place in order to protect the integrity of the network.

We have all heard of Public Safety departments that have been infected with ransomware and have paid a hefty price to regain access to their files. Today, each department’s system is separate from the others except for connections to the Internet. With FirstNet we will be looking at a nationwide wireless network where an application on a single device could end up causing a lot of grief all through the network. There will, of course, be firewalls, software, and actual people making sure nothing bad happens, but as long as one person is able to download an application or there is any connection at all to the Internet, there could very well be issues that will need to be addressed rapidly.

One reason to have a Partner for FirstNet that has been running wireless broadband networks nationwide for a while is that it lives with these issues on a daily basis and knows how to make sure its network does not become a host for malware that will do damage to many customers across the nation. It has been protecting its own networks for a long time now. It is this type of not only expertise but actual hands-on experience with it own networks that will go a long way to keeping FirstNet safe and secure.

The search for the Killer App is on once again. This concept started when Dan Bricklin, while at MIT in the early 1970s, developed the first electronic spreadsheet, and then, working with Bob Frankston, a classmate, developed VisiCalc, the first desktop computer spreadsheet and the application responsible for selling more desktop computers than any other program. When a new technology is unleashed or a new direction is being forged, we still look for the killer application that will turn that next big thing into the next great thing. Is there a killer application for FirstNet?

There are certainly those who believe there is a killer application, but from my perspective the killer application encompasses what I have been writing about for the past three weeks: a nationwide, secure, full pre-emptive priority network, a series of devices to work on that network, and the software needed to turn the network and devices into what Public Safety needs, which is the next generation of video and data communications. It will take all of these things and more for FirstNet to be a success, but the killer application is certainly one thing: fast, reliable wireless transport that can carry whatever information Public Safety needs.

Andrew M. Seybold

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