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Getting Ready for FirstNet: The Keys to Indoor Public Safety Wireless

By James Martin

The FirstNet network is an attempt to unify the national public safety communications infrastructure. But it doesn’t initially address specific in-building wireless communications needs.

When any rule or regulation — from the highest law of the land on down — lacks unified standards or clearly defined guidelines, confusion and conflict soon follow. Anyone who has played a board game with someone who uses their own rules has no doubt experienced this, hopefully with grace and good cheer.  But when the stakes are higher, the resulting turmoil has widespread implications.

That is the situation we have at present with public safety wireless communications. We have no nationwide standards — only a jumble of local standards and frequency bands (VHF, UHF, 800 P25). But over the next decade, that is all going to change.
The first standardized nationwide emergency responder network from the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) will use LTE high-speed wireless data communications technology in the 700-MHz frequency band and will eventually supplant the use of existing public safety frequencies. The FirstNet network soon will become available for use. This is a good thing, on the surface, but there are already challenges that will be caused by the network’s deployment.

New Opportunity, New Challenges

Initially, the FirstNet network will be deployed as a macro network. Although signals on FirstNet’s dedicated frequency, 700 MHz penetrate buildings better than signals at some higher frequencies, many midsize and large buildings will not be able to obtain the usable signal strength needed for indoor penetration and coverage.

Although the FirstNet network represents an attempt to unify the national public safety communications infrastructure, it doesn’t initially address specific in-building wireless communications needs. Despite the current use of lower frequencies (150 MHz to 850 MHz) to support public safety radios, many buildings experience insufficient radio coverage. Even at these low frequencies, building construction materials can block outdoor radio signals from penetrating indoors.

Underground areas, such as basements or tunnels, are impossible to cover from the outside, and energy-efficient buildings with Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification that use low-emission windows that block exterior cell signals make matters worse. LEED-certified buildings already enclose 2.5 billion square feet, and approximately 45 percent of nonresidential building construction this year will be green (environmentally responsible and resource-efficient).
Many local governments mandate the use of in-building wireless communications systems for public safety wireless communications systems in buildings over a certain size, but even existing systems will be in for a revamp as the FirstNet network comes online.

In many instances, it will be necessary to rip out and replace existing public safety (or even commercial, in some cases) in-building wireless systems to facilitate the support of the network — and that means buildings need a system that works not just now, but well into the future.

Solving Challenges with DAS

A DAS network is one option for public safety agencies and building owners to use to ensure that they are ready for the FirstNet network and ready to meet current challenges of indoor coverage.
DAS comprises cabling, small remote units and antennas that are distributed throughout a building and linked to a central distribution hub. This hub in turn connects to the RF source used by the mobile operators. Through a DAS, the wireless signal is distributed to all parts of the building.

Because the signal used to support a DAS is separate from outdoor cellular towers, capacity is dedicated to the building, and because the cellular signal brought into the building is operator-provided and operator-supported, users receive a guaranteed level of service, as opposed to unguaranteed performance of a voice-over-Wi-Fi service, for example. Plus, calls can seamlessly hand off from the inside network to the outside network as users move from the inside to the outside of the building.

Six Qualities of a FirstNet DAS

When buying or upgrading an in-building wireless communications system to a DAS, make sure it has the basic functionality for use with the FirstNet network.

First, it should support 700-MHz FirstNet frequencies while still supporting existing cellular and internet of things (IoT) frequencies. In addition to the current lack of a unified standard, public safety wireless communications systems vary by city and county across the nation. Some systems use 150-MHz and 450-MHz frequencies (which penetrate buildings well), while others use 800-MHz frequencies (which do not).

A building might be using 150 MHz, 450 MHz or 800 MHz today, but when the FirstNet network arrives, the building will have to transition to 700-MHz frequency bands. It is probable that all these frequency bands will be in use until the complete FirstNet transition occurs, which may take several years.

A truly wideband DAS can support any frequency from 150 MHz to 2700 MHz. So it could support many different frequencies with a single layer of equipment, including the 700-MHz FirstNet network, as well as seamlessly supporting future services with no need for additional hardware, such as cabling or remote antenna units. This will simplify both deployment and maintenance while keeping costs down.

Second, it should use fiber infrastructure. Different fire jurisdictions mandate either coaxial cabling or fiber as the transport layer of a public safety wireless communications system. Although most public safety systems today employ coaxial cable, as commercial networks evolve toward fiber, and as FirstNet LTE can be most efficiently deployed on the same layer as commercial LTE, a public safety transition to more fiber is natural. Fiber ensures high signal quality and strength at each remote unit and often can make use of existing spare fiber in a building to connect the public safety wireless system.

Third, it must comply with fire, life and safety standards.DAS components should be certified for use in public safety deployments by the National Fire Protection Association and should comply with various international fire codes. They should be protected bythe appropriate enclosures to shieldremote units from dust, smoke and ash.

Fourth, it should offer a low total cost of ownership. Although a public safety wireless communications system is typically in the budget for new building construction, existing buildings will have to retrofit these systems to support FirstNet frequencies, and they will have to find the money to pay for them. Combined with the previously mentioned synergies with commercial deployments, it can further reduce the costs of deploying the FirstNet network.

Fifth, it must offer symmetrical performance. First responders must have a clear, strong signal wherever they are in a structure, especially in places where signal is not typically critical for commercial users, such as in stairwells and elevator banks. A DAS must provide a uniformly strong signal at every antenna.

Sixth, it must be future-ready.A DAS shouldsupport today’s and tomorrow’s public safety frequencies. Users should not have to install special remote units or modules to support one frequency or another, or upgrade remote units when the FirstNet network comes.

Moving Closer to FirstNet

The FirstNet network represents both a challenge and an opportunity. Many in-building wireless communications systems will have to be upgraded or deployed — some existing systems support other frequencies but not the new 700-MHz FirstNet frequencies, and some buildings lack any kind of indoor coverage.

There is a positive angle, however. As building owners begin looking at the technologies that will allow them to support the FirstNet network and comply with regulations, they have a chance to deploy a single, converged in-building wireless communications system that supports all wireless traffic.

Although the FirstNet network will take several years to roll out, getting ready now with a future-ready, full-spectrum in-building DAS is a must for ensuring clear and consistent radio coverage for both building occupants and first responders, both now and years down the line.

James Martin is vice president of operations at Zinwave.

Verizon, AT&T to Improve Network Communications for Law Enforcement

With the help of Axon, a law enforcement technologies company, Verizon and AT&T are working to increase their connectivity solutions for public safety.

Axon integrates wireless technology into a range of products for law enforcement to capture and upload photo and video data into the digital evidence management solution, Evidence.com. Wireless product offerings include body-worn cameras, in-car camera systems and Signal technology that reports events such as a patrol vehicle door opening and light bar activation. Dependable wireless connectivity is crucial for law enforcement to be able to capture and upload evidence.

FirstNet Deployment Hits High Gear

AT&T has added Band 14 (700 MHz) to more than 2,500 sites with 10,000+ more currently underway in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. And the first FirstNet-dedicated deployable network assets are ready for use.

Band 14 is nationwide spectrum set aside by the government specifically for FirstNet, which is supposed to cover 95 percent or more of the U.S. population.

Band 14 deployments are underway in 50 states and Puerto Rico. And it’s already on-air for testing in 40+ states. This includes California, Florida, Illinois, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Texas. Band 14 will continue to be rapidly deployed nationwide and submitted to the FirstNet Authority for validation.

Both the tower services and construction segments are set to benefit from the FirstNet buildout. More than 1,000 new sites are planned as part of the FirstNet Band 14 build.

AT&T is expected to touch a high majority of Crown Castle’s 70k site portfolio over the course of its FirstNet buildout, according to Deutsche Bank Research. The carrier is planning to deploy AWS-3 and WCS bands along with the FirstNet spectrum for a total of up to 60 MHz of spectrum.

“We also expect that the buildout will involve adding a few thousand incremental macro sites,” said Matthew Niknam, DBR analyst. “We think that CCI is well-positioned to see leasing activity from AT&T given the two signed an MLA earlier this year (note CCI bought AT&T’s tower portfolio of 9.7k sites in 2013).

In the past month, adoption has grown to nearly 1,500 public safety agencies across 52 states and territories. This accounts for more than 110,000 connections on the FirstNet network.

AT&T Will Spend $2B on FirstNet Build This Year

By J. Sharpe Smith, Senior Editor

FirstNet deployment is off to a strong start with expected $2 billion capex in 2018, John Stephens, AT&T chief financial officer, said yesterday at the Cowen Technology, Media and Telecom Conference in New York.

“We got our build plans in the first quarter, so from the standpoint of network specifics we’re just getting started,” he said, according to a transcript from SeekingAlpha. “With regard to building the network core, building the software, we have been doing that all year long, throughout last year and into this year. So we have been doing a lot of work.”

AT&T plans to touch more than 10,000 towers by year-end and to complete one/third of its overall FirstNet build by the first quarter of next year. Stephens said the company’s aggressive approach may even surpass those goals.

“I would expect we would not only hit that but beat [those goals],” he said. “Our network guys are focused like a laser on this. We would much rather get it done quicker. It makes sense as long as we can do it efficiently.”

The FirstNet network consists of a 2X10 megahertz 700 Band 14 spectrum overlaid on top AT&T’s existing spectrum with a dedicated network core that will provide relentless preemption for firefighters, police, EMTs, and other first responders. The key to efficiency for the FirstNet buildout is to include AWS 3 and WCS spectrum.

“So, we are going to get three bands of spectrum up, with one tower climb, and it is going to be really, really efficient, especially when the government is paying you for their people to the FirstNet reimbursement program,” he said.

When it won the FirstNet contract, AT&T received 20 megahertz of 700 MHz spectrum effectively at no cost for 25 years, plus $6 billion dollars to build it out. The carrier will make sustainability payments of $100 million annually.

“We committed to provide another $15 billion of investment into the network over those 25 years,” Stephens said. Particularly as you see 5G and we will have 6G and even more, that is a very reasonable commitment to make.”

FirstNet, 5G Buildouts Intertwined: AT&T CEO

By J. Sharpe Smith, Senior Editor

Building its nationwide gigabit wireless-centric network will serve dual purposes for AT&T, deployment of FirstNet and preparation for 5G, Randall Stephenson, AT&T CEO, said at the JP Morgan Global Technology, Media and Communications Conference, this week, in Boston.

As AT&T deploys FirstNet, it will also be equipping every cell site for 5G, Stephenson said in a Seeking Alpha transcript. “So when 5G is out, we literally have a software upgrade to move to true 5G, [when the standard is ready].”

Additionally, every AT&T cell site will be equipped with the carrier’s spectrum portfolio. Including 60 megahertz of fallow spectrum.

FirstNet and 5G buildout are certainly AT&T’s goals, but the building blocks – fiber, carrier aggregation, MIMO AND 256 QAM – will have a nice payback in the short term with greatly increased LTE speeds. In three years, AT&T plans to have the “best-performing” network in the world.

“As we’re climbing every single cell site, we will be, by virtue of carrier aggregation, be standing up all of the spectrum in our portfolio,” Stephenson said. “We call this 5G Evolution because that is the first step to 5G. Carrier aggregation with 4X4 MIMO, 256 QAM, we are deploying all of that as we climb of these cell sites. As we exit this year, we will have 500 markets with that full capability in place. Our LTE speeds will double without going to 5G.”

AT&T is in deployment mode in terms of FirstNet infrastructure. It turned on an independent broadband evolved packet core at the end of March that is dedicated to the FirstNet users.

“There is a core routing infrastructure in place, stood up, totally independent from our traditional basic core routing structure infrastructure just for the first responders,” Stephenson said. “Why is that important? Because with this core routing infrastructure, you now have capabilities of new services [such as ruthless preemption] for the first responders.”

As a result, AT&T is adding first responder subscribers 650 agencies across 48 states. “We’re marketing and promoting, and we have salespeople on the ground. And we’re actually selling actively in the marketplace on this today,” Stephenson said. “The deployment is going really, really well. We are on plan. We are on target. We’d like to accelerate it and go faster if possible.”

Two other critical components for 5G, Stephenson said, are spectrum and small cells. To that end, the carrier acquired FiberTower last year to gain access to a nationwide block of 39 GHz spectrum and will spend $25 billion building out small cells.