What FirstNet means for the future of Land Mobile Radios


By Taylor Thomas, Marketing Specialist at Waveband Communications and First Source Wireless

FirstNet, First Responders Network Authority, was established in 2012 by Congress to build and deploy a nationwide broadband network. The creation of this network is solely dedicated to first responders. FirstNet networks give first responders fast, reliable, and highly secure communications during daily transmissions and disasters.

Public safety identified a need for a better communication network after the attacks on September 11, 2001, when first responder’s radio systems could not easily operate across police, fire, and paramedics. During 9/11, land and mobile power lines received a high volume of calls, making it difficult to communicate. For over 11 years, public safety advocates created the 9/11 Commission Report and pushed Congress to act and pass legislation for the dedicated network. Congress ultimately created the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) in 2012.

In March 2017, FirstNet awarded a 25-year contract with AT&T to implement and build the network. FirstNet Authority launched nationwide in 2018 with all 50 states including two territories and Washington, DC joining the network. Today, FirstNet Authority is continuing to ensure public safety professionals are supported and ensures their needs are met today and into the future.

FirstNet Authority’s primary users are agencies who are on the scene of an emergency first. These include,

  • Law Enforcement
  • Fire Protection Services
  • Emergency Dispatch (911)
  • Health Care
  • Utilities
  • Transportation
  • And Education

FirstNet Extended Primary Users are agencies, nonprofit or for-profit organizations, who provide support for primary users including, mitigation, clean-up, and restoration during or after an emergency have occurred.

FirstNet is critical to the public safety sectors to provide first responders with technologies that allow them to communicate to do their job safely and effectively. FirstNet allows public safety to share one network to improve communication and work together to save lives.

In this article, we will discuss the transition from land mobile radios to FirstNet and explain the advantages and disadvantages of each network.

Two-way radios have been used since 1933 to communicate between departments. Today, radios are still being used by public safety to communicate day to day and even through emergencies. With FirstNet coming into the scene, organizations should not abandon the thought of LMR just yet. 

So, what does FirstNet mean for land mobile radio? With the creation of the network now being used across many devices including cell phones, agencies should continue to use and invest in their land mobile radios for the time being. Public safety professionals understand the financial aspects of maintaining a two-way radio, so contemplating moving to FirstNet may be a consideration. 

The release of FirstNet Authority brings many to believe LMR systems may be fading out over the years following but many encourage the use of radios should continue. The following explains why ditching your two-way radio is not the best option.

Issues with talkaround

Talkaround enables two portable radios to communicate directly without a repeater. This feature in radios is important for public safety professionals, especially firefighters. Although the network will have talkaround, it will not be as effective as the LMR systems in terms of capability. LTE devices, although they may appear to be similar to an LMR system, they will operate with less output power and utilize smaller batteries. There also appears to be an issue with the distance LTE devices can be before the talkaround mode will not operate. The distance these devices can be from each other before communication runs out is smaller.  It is advised that until these networks provide similar talkaround modes, agencies should still be using LMR for communication.

Fees 

FirstNet has two data plans to choose from for their devices, unlimited Enhanced and Unlimited Standard. The Enhanced plan is 44.90 per month per device while the Standard plan is 39.99 per month per device. The features of each plan include,

  • Enhanced: Unlimited Talk, Text, Data, Mobile Hotspot, and Tethering
  • Standard: Unlimited Talk, Text, and Data

Before switching to an LTE device, your agency should consider the lifetime costs of providing the service to your department and if you can allocate those costs.

Emergency Preparedness

Two-way radios have been known to stand up in the aftermath of a natural disaster. Cell phones are typically inoperable due to downed cellular towers which result in limited communication. LMR’s also have many backup options like interchangeable batteries when power is low providing extra assurance. According to the National Public Safety Telecommunication Council (NPSTC) report, LTE networks require 10 times as many cellular sites to give the same coverage as an LMR device would. Until we are certain FirstNet can provide us secure connection during emergencies such as hurricanes and storms, using LMR should continue to be strongly considered as the main option. 

Coverage

When FirstNet is fully built out, coverage will extend to 76.2 percent of the United States and D.C. Ultimately, coverage will be provided to public safety professionals in Hawaii and Alaska and all five U.S. island territories. Although coverage is continuing to expand and the FirstNet is continuing to develop, we must guarantee that we have sufficient coverage when responding to disasters and large events. FirstNet and the partnership with AT&T are working together to develop replacement coverage such as trucks, satellites, and antenna systems. The network currently has a fleet of 76 solutions for temporary coverage. FirstNet does advise public safety agencies to consider procuring their temporary coverage during high volume events. 

If you are considering changing to an LTE device, coverage, and capacity of this network should be strongly discussed and be fully dependable during the time of use.

Security

Law enforcement requires radio transmissions to be encrypted for secure communication. Police radios main types of encryptions are AES, DES, and RSA. Having a secure communication means police require radios to have encryptions. FirstNet allows for end-to-end encryption on their LTE devices. The network comes with a FIPS 140-2 compliant VPN that keeps traffic protected. 

FirstNet also has around the clock security monitoring by the Security Operations Center which is dedicated to protecting critical data and services. The network also has User Authentication allows for ease of use with ICAM, Identity Credential, and Access Management.

FirstNet Devices

FirstNet now has a wide range of phones and devices that are compatible with the network. FirstNet can also be added onto tablets, laptops, smart devices such as Apple watches, modems, and routers.

Phones

  • Google Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL
  • Alcatel SMARTFLIP
  • iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro, and iPhone 11 Pro Maxf
  • iPhone SE, iPhone Xs Max, iPhone Xs
  • iPhone XR
  • Kyocera Duraforce Pro 2

To see more FirstNet devices click here.

Two-Way Radios

  • APX Next All-Band P25 Smart Portable Radio
  • L3Harris XL-185P Single Band Portable Radio 
  • L3Harris Xl-200P Multi-Band Portable Radio

FirstNet is available on select two-way radios including Harris and Motorola. This allows the network to be fully compatible with existing radios. This interoperability lets you keep using two-way radios and the accessories you are using now. These two-way radios allow public safety professionals the opportunity to keep using devices they know and have used for years instead of switching to an LTE device.

FirstNet and LMR Accessories

Law enforcement and other public safety officials rely heavily on additional communication accessories to do their job effectively. These accessories can include a speaker microphone, radio earpiece, surveillance kit, antennas, and more. FirstNet has made additional accessories available for their Sonim devices. This list includes wired PTT headsets, remote speaker microphones, holsters, and chargers. Currently, FirstNet only has accessories for their Sonim XP5 and XP8 devices and do not have accessories for the compatible FirstNet phones.

If you choose to continue using two-way radios with FirstNet capabilities, your current accessories will continue to support. Motorola radio accessories, from Waveband Communications, are durable and guaranteed to be compatible. Agencies will find it easier to purchase accessories including more options to choose from such as style and availability.

Sonim manufactures cell phones that are compatible with FirstNet. The Sonim XP5, XP7, and XP8 have 1-wire surveillance kits that can connect to the cell phone and be used for covert communication.

Do I make the switch from two-way radio to an LTE device?

Switching from a two-way radio to a FirstNet device should not be taken lightly and you should consider the concerns before you conclude. You should consider all aspects of cost, coverage, available accessories, and network issues. It is suggested to continue investing in your LMR devices until certain LTE devices are the right choice and safety is not compromised. Agencies should continue to keep checking on the progress FirstNet is making for public safety. Remember, the safety and communication of our public safety professionals should be the main concern.


Taylor Thomas is the Marketing Specialist at Waveband Communications and First Source Wireless. She concentrates her writing on public safety covering a wide range of topics on critical communications, and her work has been published by numerous communications industry media platforms. Taylor frequently attends communications conferences including the International Wireless Conference, APCO Conference, and International Police Chiefs Conference.


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