First Net competes to become a Small Cell Neutral Host

Fire FighterFirst Net is a brand new nationwide US LTE network dedicated for use by First Responders. With a budget of $7 billion and exclusive 20MHz spectrum, this will provide high speed LTE services to around a million professionals. With extensive coverage and lots of spare capacity, First Net have also indicated that others could share their spectrum on a commercial basis. Is this the ideal third party neutral host we’ve been waiting for?

What is First Net?

It became apparent after 9/11 that the radio systems used by first responders (Fire, Paramedics, Police etc.) were robust and reliable but also incompatible, expensive and with limited functionality. There are around 10,000 different and incompatible “land mobile radio networks” nationally today. The US Administration took ten years to approve a solution, creating the First Responder Network Authority in 2012 and allocating $7 Billion and 20 MHz of 700MHz spectrum funded from some of that year’s LTE spectrum auction proceeds. The agency is required to become self-funding after this initial investment.

FirstNet is mandated to construct a nationwide radio network (across 56 States and Territories), which will use LTE and a single core network. Each state can choose to opt out and deploy its own LTE radio network (part funded by the NTIA) provided it meets the required capabilities, including interconnecting with the national public safety core broadband network (NPSBN).  Consultation and meetings with every State and Territory should have been held by now and a technical compliance matrix is being developed.

The network will first establish a broadband data network and later evolve to support mission critical voice services.

Companies were invited submit their tenders for the construction and operation of this new network by 31 May. The agency has been assessing these and had expected to announce contract awards by 1st November, but this has been delayed indefinitely. A few states have already issued RFPs and one has even selected their preferred vendor, although not yet formally opting-out. That decision must be taken by Governors within 90 days from when FirstNet presents its specific plans for their state, and when the cost of the FirstNet solution will be known.

US General Audit Office evaluates progress

In 2015, the GAO published a detailed 72 page report (with 1 page highlights) raising some concerns. They noted a wide range of cost estimates to build and operate the network over a 10 year period, ranging from $12 billion to $47 billion and question how it will become self-funding. Costs will vary depending on the level of commercial partnerships, reuse of existing infrastructure, choice of level of resilience and coverage. Their recommendations included completing a risk assessment, develop standard of conduct and an evaluation plan for early builder projects. FirstNet concurred with these and are dealing with them.

The limited press coverage I’ve seen hasn’t been favourable. The Wall Street Journal points to failures in earlier schemes, such as the Los Angeles Regional Interoperable Communication System (LA-RICS) in 2009, and asks whether a commercial service from one of the leading LTE commercial networks might suffice. The Atlantic is more forthright, saying it’s already obsolete and questioning whether the issues it tries to solve could already be handled by existing network features.

Successful trials in Band 14

There’s little doubt that the system can operate effectively since its based on standard LTE that is known to provide good high speed wireless data. Some of the more specific First Responder voice features may take a little development, but are evolving as part of the LTE global standard.

Successful public demonstrations include those from Parallel Wireless at major events such as the SuperBowl, Republican National Convention and New York Marathon. These have handled high traffic throughput, interoperability with existing systems and very short timescales for deployment.

Spectrum Choice

The spectrum is Band 14, with FDD LTE using 788 to 798MHz for uplink and 758 to 768MHz for downlink. The 3GPP specifications allow this to be split into two separate 5MHz channels or combined into a single 10MHz block but I suspect the latter is most likely. This lower frequency will provide better range and in-building penetration than higher frequencies, benefitting both rural and urban areas. There is an unfortunate conflict in this band, where large parts of the world have chosen a different way to assign the spectrum. Specifically Mexico has opted for the APT (Asia-Pacific Telecommunity).

This will lead to potential issues near the border where uplink and downlink transmissions in each country may overlap. Availability and choice of compatible smartphone devices may also be slightly limited. While many of the latest smartphones already support the 700MHz bands, popular ones such as iPhone or Samsung Galaxy don’t currently advertise Band 14 compatibility. Suitably ruggedised Android smartphones from vendors such as Sonim are already available commercially.

Sharing their spectrum for a fee

One opportunity from this scheme is the sharing of spectrum with third parties. The network should have plenty of spare capacity, with the option of giving priority during emergencies – not really different from normal cellular providers.

Speaking at 5GWorld in London earlier this year, Edward Parkinson (FirstNet Director of Government Affairs) made it clear that they were open to allowing third parties to use this spectrum on a leased basis. For example, building owners or remote areas could equip their own properties and make use of it, separately routing emergency traffic to FirstNet and all other traffic through their own core network. One possibility is for a neutral host organisation to aggregate and manage a core network with interconnections to the major cellular networks as well as FirstNet. There may be opportunities for a commercial trade-off where coverage is provided in rural or remote areas that would otherwise be isolated.

This could provide some additional funding and/or reduced costs to improve FirstNet’s business model. It could also potentially open up competition with existing cellular service providers.

Competing eco-systems for Neutral Host operation

In order to succeed in creating a parallel ecosystem alongside existing cellular networks for the public to use, FirstNet would need to:

  • Develop a spectrum licensing scheme to allow third parties to use/share it and easily pay for the privilege
  • Establish and approve one or more independent neutral hosts, who could aggregate, support and manage many smaller installations
  • Ensure that basestation (small cell and macrocell) vendors bring to market compatible products. This is mostly about supporting Band 14 which is a relatively small step.
  • Ensure that smartphone device vendors extend their products to support Band 14. It’s one of many features and bands on their roadmap and will have to fight hard to get above the line.

One issue is that there are at least two other very similar schemes also trying to achieve the same objective:

  • CBRS, a US-only shared spectrum scheme using TD-LTE at 3.5GHz
  • MulteFire, a global scheme using modified LTE in the 5GHz unlicenced band

Spectrum pricing for CBRS is as yet unknown, but has been mandated by the FCC to be “reasonable” and will set the bar for anything that FirstNet might charge for in-building.

FirstNet definitely has an advantage in being able to assign much higher RF power levels for rural and remote areas, where CBRS and MulteFire are much more oriented for inbuilding use. Where deployments increase the FirstNet coverage footprint, it may be difficult for them to charge spectrum fees for a service that is ultimately saving the organisation deployment costs.

With the first contract awards expected in the coming weeks, subject to some uncertainty around the views of the incoming US administration, the picture should become clearer early next year.

Further viewing: The public safety departments of two US states have released educational videos about FirstNet: Pennsylvania and Ohio

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