Experts Debate FirstNet ‘Monopoly,’ Interoperability

ORLANDO – Panelists and audience members at two sessions at the IWCE show here yesterday debated whether the public safety broadband network that AT&T, Inc., is building for the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) is a “monopoly” and whether there should be interoperability between the AT&T system and those of rivals such as Verizon Communications, Inc.

During one session, Robert LeGrande II, founder and chief executive officer of The Digital Decision LLC, a public safety consulting firm whose clients include Verizon, which has complained because its planned public safety core will not be permitted to connect to the public safety core being deployed by AT&T, said that AT&T will have a monopoly.

“The one thing we don’t want is another monopoly,” he said. He said competition from Verizon is good for first responders. “Public safety wins because they’re going to duke it out for your business,” Mr. LeGrande added. He added that the two networks must be interoperable for public safety agencies to be well-served, including enabling uniform priority and preemption across networks and device interoperability.

But Dick Mirgon, president of Richard Mirgon Consulting LLC, whose clients include AT&T, said it doesn’t make sense to say that AT&T has a monopoly, adding that the public safety community is getting what it pushed for in the FirstNet system – one interoperable network rather than disparate systems that can’t communicate with each other. “This is about one network,” he said.  “It is not a commercial network.”

During a session later in the day, Arshdeep Sawhney, senior manager-product management, global products, and solutions for Verizon, also stressed the need for interoperability, including between public safety applications offered by the carriers.  “Of course, for this, we need a handshake,” she said.

FirstNet has said that applications in the FirstNet app store will only be available to FirstNet subscribers. But David Buchanan, director-consultation for FirstNet, said FirstNet expects that developers who produce apps for the FirstNet app store will also customize them for the Google Play and Apple App Store so non-FirstNet subscribers can use them.

Pat Mallon, California’s FirstNet state point of contact (SPOC) and assistant director-public safety communications in the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES), noted that during a dozen meetings that were held in his state to review the FirstNet draft state plan last year with public safety representatives, “the one concern that they had was coverage, coverage, coverage. Because in California, there are some significant gaps in the present coverage, you know, by AT&T.”

Mr. Mallon said that a number of agencies have indicated that they would like to stay with their current carriers until AT&T has improved its coverage and it has “truly reliable service.” He asked Mr. Buchanan if interoperability would be available across networks until AT&T’s coverage improves. Mr. Buchanan said that there will be interoperability just like there is between existing wireless carriers. But he added, “If the question is about, you know, allowing other carriers onto the FirstNet network, I can tell you that we have never heard a single first responder suggest that that should be the solution. We never heard a single member of the private industry suggest, when we were doing RFIs, that … there should be multiple carriers, or a network of networks.”

Several industry entities, including Verizon and Rivada Networks LLC, which lost out to AT&T for the FirstNet contract, argued later in the FirstNet process that other carriers should be permitted to connect to the FirstNet core.

Mr. Buchanan also expressed confidence that “the single network solution” will be successful and that it is the best way to meet needs of public safety.

A public safety representative in the audience asked whether the push-to-talk (PTT) functions would be able to interoperate across networks.

Mr. Buchanan said that a standard for mission-critical PTT is expected by 2020 so PTT works over LTE networks. He said FirstNet’s technical team in Boulder, Colo., and others are working to address this issue.

A FirstNet spokesman noted to TR Daily later that PTT capability is a deliverable under FirstNet’s request for proposals (RFP).

Joe Boucher, chief technology officer of Mutualink, Inc., said that over-the-top applications can enable PTT interoperability today, although he said that such functionality should be permitted “under the top as well.”

Another audience member expressed frustration about the difficulty getting answers about interoperability between the AT&T and Verizon networks.

“We’re going to have to live with each other for quite some time folks,” he said, his voice rising. “So the kibitzing and the bickering and all this, I’m getting tired of it, I’m getting absolutely tired of it. I don’t get clear answers from AT&T, I don’t get clear answers from Verizon.” He cited the need for a “killer app” that is “brand-agnostic.”

During the session, Ms. Sawhney was peppered with questions about what commitments Verizon was making with its public safety offering, including the level of reliability it would commit to. In generally vague responses, she said Verizon would do what’s best for public safety customers.

AT&T is building out a nationwide public safety broadband network as part of a 25-year contract with FirstNet. Ms. Sawhney was asked how Verizon guarantees that it “will be there for tomorrow.” She replied that it has a record of serving the public safety community for decades, adding, “Our commitment is really based on trust.”

FirstNet is holding AT&T to a 99.99% reliability standard. Ms. Sawhney was asked if Verizon would meet or exceed that. “The use cases will vary,” she replied, adding that Verizon has committed to three 9s, four 9s, and even five 9s reliability in the past.

As to whether Verizon would agree to a roaming agreement with AT&T, she said that was up to AT&T and FirstNet but that Verizon was willing to explore that if it would help customers.

She also noted that Verizon is deploying a public safety core and nationwide preemption by the end of this month and said that additional priority services would be added this month as well. She also said that additional “form factors” for deployable equipment, including a trailer, would be deployed in the second half of 2018.

During the earlier session, Andy Seybold, CEO and principal consultant for Andrew Seybold, Inc., who says he is not consulting for AT&T, FirstNet, or Verizon, suggested that public safety agencies that haven’t tried AT&T’s network in a while do so. He said that clients in Southern California, Arizona, and New Mexico have been “pleasantly surprised” at AT&T’s network, saying they found it was “either as good or better than Verizon in a lot of … locations.”

“Now, there’s some building to do,” Mr. Seybold acknowledged. But he added, “It’s not the same network it was four or five years ago.”

Mr. Buchanan, who spoke on both of yesterday’s panels, said during the latter one that FirstNet plans to make a public announcement soon about its plan to engage public safety stakeholders as AT&T builds out and operates the nationwide network. He said FirstNet wants to continue collaborating with first responders to advocate for their needs and “help support you as you find the best ways to operationalize FirstNet for your agency.”

First, he said, FirstNet wants to educate and inform public safety to make sure it realizes the benefits of FirstNet. Second, it wants to launch “a collaboration campaign,” which will include one-on-one meetings and other efforts, working along with AT&T. Third, FirstNet wants to take the information it gathers and share it with AT&T and others to influence enhancements and improvements into the network. “We’re excited about what’s coming,” Mr. Buchanan said. —Paul Kirby,

Courtesy TRDaily