Technology stimulates transformation. AT&T recently announced their game-changing plans to build a national public safety broadband network (NPSBN, or “FirstNet”), which will be the first nationwide wireless broadband network committed to America's first responders. FirstNet will transform the public safety industry and trigger advancement from narrowband Land Mobile Radio (LMR) technology to broadband Long-term evolution (LTE) technology.
Why is this transformation so exciting? In short, because broadband communications will trigger innovative applications that will help emergency responders save lives.
Legacy LMR technology provides wireless, two-way voice communications, commonly used by police, ambulance and fire services. This technology is similar to walkie-talkies and provides first responders with private voice communications day-to-day, and in mission critical situations, like natural disasters. While LMR technology is universal and mature, it has a few shortcomings.
First, LMR is bandwidth-limited and only supports voice and few data applications, such as automatic vehicle location. Second, public safety agencies often use incompatible LMR systems. This lack of interoperability prohibits seamless communications across agencies, which complicates large incidents like Hurricane Katrina and 9/11 because multiple jurisdictions join forces to manage crisis events. Third, many agencies supplement their private LMR systems and radios with public cellular networks and smartphones. This add-on enables a limited set of high-bandwidth data applications, like text messaging, geographic information systems, file transfer and video. However, traffic on public networks is high during catastrophic incidents, impeding communication, and first responders must instead rely on voice-only communication over their LMR networks.
A nationwide, interoperable LTE network dedicated to first responders fortifies public safety communications and enables innovative broadband data applications, even during incidents and between jurisdictions. This capability would allow first responders to share live video and other critical information, like building plans for fire rescue actions, uninterrupted and in real-time during crisis events.
Black & Veatch believes that mission-critical LTE networks like FirstNet will eventually replace LMR networks. While LTE networks initially aim to provide mission critical data, it may be another decade or more before they can provide mission critical voice. There are two main reasons for this technology lag:
- Safety and Reliability: LMR will remain the public safety voice communication standard until LTE’s reliability is established and first responders trust the system.
- Scaling Infrastructure and Personnel: LTE requires five LTE transmitter sites for every one LMR site to achieve similar coverage. The infrastructure requirements increases cost, personnel, and ultimately the deployment time of LTE. Sharing economies of scale with the public sector, which is already using LTE worldwide, could mitigate the level of effort.
The LTE Platform for Public Safety Innovation
Technology is constantly evolving, and as LTE is priming to replace LMR, there is already another technology on the horizon—5G. This next generation network will deliver even higher speeds and better efficiency. In the meantime, LTE provides the right interoperable platform to integrate mission critical data applications—a groundbreaking innovation in public safety. With a suite of new capabilities, emergency response will improve through interoperable communications and life-saving technology and tools.
Start the LTE Transformation
Now is the time to prepare for LTE, not at LMR’s swan song. Early budget planning and preparation means that agencies will be able to transfer operations seamlessly and on time rather than scrambling to catch up when a tipping point arrives. With much to gain, creating an “LTE-ready” network will help begin a new age of first responder technologies. Here is how the public safety leaders can start the process:
- Continue LMR Investment: LMR will remain the public safety voice communication standard until LTE’s reliability is established and first responders trust the system.
- Develop Long-Term LTE strategy: Set strategy for each network lifecycle phase, including planning/design, pilot/deployment, and operation/densification. Plan for shorter equipment lifecycles of 5-7 years. Streamline procurement and construction processes to improve efficiency.
- Invest in Supporting Infrastructure: Acquire real estate, lay fiber and construct towers and shelters.
- Perform technology upgrades: Implement large-scale IP in the network core and backbone, which may include multi-protocol and network management technology and a network/security operations center. Increase capacity to support 5x as many base stations, in line with LTE infrastructure requirements.
- Prepare personnel: Communicate changes early, perform training and hire staff to match network scale.
Subject Matter Expert
Scott Dicus: DicusS@bv.com