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Mobile & Wireless
Commentary

Public Safety Communications: Time For Convergence

First responders need a better blend of reliability and multimedia capability. Until a dedicated 4G network is implemented, a blend of networks, devices, and applications should drive future procurements.

and unavailable, which is simply not acceptable for public safety communications. This explains why first responders continue to invest in LMR for their foundational, go-to communication networks.

Public safety leaders in the US have long recognized that the best way to provide mission-critical broadband communications is to deploy a private 4G network exclusively for first responders. As a result of their advocacy, the federal government created the FirstNet Authority in 2012 to develop and deploy a private, public safety-grade 4G LTE network for first responders.

The National Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN) will be specifically designed to provide secure, robust, and prioritized broadband service to first responders and will facilitate the deployment of mission-critical broadband applications and services. However, even with $7 billion in identified funding, the NPSBN is unlikely to provide ubiquitous geographic coverage across the US and its included territories. In comparison, commercial cellular providers have already spent many times that amount, and while most users have coverage, a significant landmass (including even major rural highways) remains uncovered.

So communications network planners must continue to incorporate devices, applications, and services that allow for converged communications across a variety of networks -- including LMR, commercial cellular, and private broadband networks. Legacy LMR will continue to exist well into the foreseeable future, and commercial cellular coverage will likely always exceed the FirstNet population coverage footprint. The best way to approach future communication procurements is to think in terms of converged networks, devices, and applications.

Convergence means that services are delivered with the same presentation, features, and operation regardless of what network those services run over. For example, traditional LMR Push-To-Talk (PTT) voice service includes prioritization (some calls are more critical than others), encryption, emergency declaration, and talk-group patching (allowing different services to talk to one another). A converged PTT network would deliver these same services to broadband users without intermediate encryption/decryption services or loss of end-to-end emergency declarations and prioritization. All these PTT features should be built upon standards-based voice coding, encryption, and messaging formats to ensure that public safety can interoperate with one another on a vendor-agnostic basis.

The same proposition also holds for converged devices, which should provide for a mix of services across LMR, commercial cellular, and private broadband networks. Procurements for new equipment should carefully consider how devices will support a variety of services as users move through different network coverage areas. Even agencies in urban areas with many broadband service providers should consider how these devices will support mission-critical communications when catastrophic events result in usage surges and potential network outages.

In such situations, multimode devices that fall back to secondary networks may be the only viable communications platforms. One particularly appealing paradigm for vehicular communications is the use of multiband routers, which can simultaneously support NPSBN and commercial cellular networks. When coupled with an in-vehicle WiFi network allowing sanctioned BYOD usage, the vehicular router becomes a highly functional and compelling platform. This platform also has the advantage of immediacy -- in-vehicle routers can use commercial cellular networks now and migrate to the NPSBN when it becomes available.

While I foresee increasing availability and adoption of applications and smart devices designed for public safety in the coming months, until the NPSBN is built, first responders must continue to rely on mission-critical radio as their primary and most trusted communications device. There are huge advantages to using BYOD smartphones and tablets in public safety now, however, and first responders with BYOD can get value from non-mission-critical communications today even if they are dependent on consumer infrastructure.

The real value for public safety workers is to identify what future services they need today and structure their procurements to get networks, devices, and applications that support the converged future tomorrow.

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