Philip Mason talks to acting CEO of FirstNet Ed Parkinson about how the network has changed the critical communications market, and how first-responders are likely to embrace 5G

CCT: Nearly a year after the roll-out of FirstNet, how many first-responders are using it?

EP: It’s now being used across public safety in the United States, simply as a natural progression to what they’d already been doing. If you ask anyone in the emergency services, they’ll tell you that they’ve been using broadband for years – albeit not necessarily in a mission critical context – and that’s clearly continuing now.

Obviously, the differentiator with FirstNet is that it’s dedicated to public safety, with priority and pre-emption built-in. We have a lot of features which no one else can offer.

CCT: What have been the specific use-cases, prior to the eventual roll-out of mission-critical push-to-talk?

EP: A primary use-case has been to improve situational awareness in relation to certain events, something which, again, is linked to the feel which first-responders already have for the technology.

A great example of that was at the Houston rodeo – which is absolutely massive – where there were reports of a lost child. If you think of how that would have been handled back in the day, an upset mother would come to an officer and try to give a description. Today, by contrast, if you’re a parent, you’re always taking photos of your kids. That’s precisely what happened at the Houston Rodeo, and we were able to circulate the picture securely on FirstNet devices, and the child was found 20 minutes later.

CCT: Has the use of FirstNet been incorporated into business-as-usual operations, or is it just larger events?

EP: We’ve got just over 5,250 agencies using more than 425,000 connections on the network, and what you’d see if you went around to each of their respective agencies is that they’re all using it in different ways. The LAPD have their own needs as distinct from others, which will be different again from a fire department in Montana.

For daily operations, FirstNet is helping public safety connect and seamlessly communicate across various agencies and public safety disciplines. In Utah, the City of Orem has its police, fire and EMS connected to the network and it is helping them share information in real time, which improves situational awareness across the board. They even put FirstNet to the test during the city’s annual festival; as networks became congested, public safety could still connect with FirstNet.

Another thing which we were able to roll out was additional assets to improve network capacity – AT&T has 72 of these, which are specific to band 14 deployment. That allows for a certain type of capacity that you otherwise wouldn’t have. We were flying – blowing away AT&T’s commercial network, which in turn was blowing away everyone else. These assets have been used for large planned events like the Boston Marathon and in the aftermath of disasters like in response to Hurricane Michael when other infrastructure was damaged.

CCT: At Critical Communications Europe, you suggested that – via projects such as FirstNet – the private communications market is starting to be increasingly influenced by the requirements of public safety. Could you elaborate on that?

EP: I always talk about the holistic nature of public safety comms, but at the same time it’s only one part of the pie in terms of verticals which are relevant to the public sector and/or mission-critical. You also need to include things like education, healthcare, smart cities and utilities, with the latter in particular potentially benefiting from access to priority and pre-emption.

With that in mind, we’re definitely seeing opportunities for MNOs to start to work in these – previously quite disparate – areas of the market, something which is likely to be growing all the time. For example, for a high-pressure emergency like a school shooting. I’m sure if you’re a school you’ll want to connect with public safety as quickly as you can, so imagine if you could integrate a public high school security network into a local police enforcement system.

Going back to the priority and pre-emption piece, it’s difficult at this point to say what will become available and to whom, but from my point of view, the market is going to take care of that. At the moment what we’re seeing is public safety almost as a kind of test-bed in terms of developing these different kinds of enterprise solutions.

CCT: How do you anticipate the market changing once 5G becomes available? Will network slicing become part of the discussion, particularly in relation to public safety?

EP: Who knows what will happen when we enter a 5G-type environment, but it’s obviously an area of interest for us. Again, we’re likely to see enterprise networks starting to develop – whether that’s public-safety-related, or inside a factory or an assembly plant – interconnecting with the
larger MNO.

From our point of view at FirstNet, as long as we’re at the forefront of how the market is thinking – and we can take advantage of market forces in a commercially beneficial way – that’s only going to be advantageous to public safety.

Going back to the subject of how we’ve influenced things from a commercial perspective, while I’m certainly not saying FirstNet is the be all and end all, we have been able to drive that innovation, as well as pushing the market to where we’ve needed it to go. These other operators simply didn’t offer priority and pre-emption before we came along. In the same way, Apple and Samsung weren’t offering Band 14 public safety-specific devices until we entered the market and made them viable.

CCT: What discussions have there been around 5G, smart cities and so on among FirstNet users? What are your plans?

EP: There’s currently a balancing act when it comes to 5G. In the first instance, we obviously want to catch the wave as it happens, but at the same time public safety doesn’t necessarily know what they’re likely to want to use it for and the mission-critical standards won’t be there yet. Zero latency’s pretty cool, but do first-responders need it right now? I don’t know anyone who has the answer to that.

From our point of view, we’ll be able to be 5G-ready in the future because of our relationship with AT&T. But that still leaves the question of how far we invest in it in anticipation of what it might provide. Eighteen billion dollars sounds like a lot of money, but that’s spread out over the next 25 years, and we clearly don’t want to put all our eggs in one basket. In a quarter of a century’s time, we’re going to be looking at what 6G might provide.

CCT: What conversations have you had with public safety in relation to the next generation
of LTE?

EP: We have to engage with public safety, but also with industry, again, understanding in which direction the marketplace is moving. Users don’t really know the impact which things like 5G – or AI, or Blockchain – are going to have, but that’s OK because industry does. Let’s talk to them and ask them to think about public safety applications.

CCT: To what degree has the roll-out of FirstNet simplified the US critical communications landscape in relation to things such as interoperability?

EP: I think you could call it a complicated environment, which in a way was the point of FirstNet.

We have a constitutionally driven federal style of government, which gives an awful lot of power to the individual states. At the same time, across the country, there are also around 60,000 public safety agencies – all largely autonomous – the majority of which have land mobile networks which are not interoperable despite being provided by the same one or two companies. We’ve been able to leapfrog all of that and provide a single system, so that it doesn’t matter where you are.

The fact that FirstNet is offering a new choice for public safety, we have to offer a service which is competitive, and that meets or exceeds the expectations of public safety. We spent two years consulting with the states; we even went to RFP, gathering information from the locals to explain to the market that this is what they want.

You have to go to the users first, and that will continue going forward. If I just went unilaterally to somewhere like LA and told them “This is what you want”, I’d get laughed out of the room, and rightly so.

Ed Parkinson CV
Edward Parkinson was named acting CEO in October 2018. Previously he served as the director of external affairs, where he was responsible for all external communications and intergovernmental relations with local, state and federal organisations. Before joining FirstNet, Parkinson served for five years as a professional staff member for the House Homeland Security Committee. During this period, Parkinson’s primary responsibility was in the field of first-responder telecommunications. He also worked on issues including national security, emergency preparedness and cybersecurity. Previously, Parkinson served as an associate at Kearsarge Global Advisors, an advocacy firm, and a research analyst at McKenna, Long & Aldridge, an international law firm specialising in public policy.

Author: Philip Mason