The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) was established to build and operate a nationwide broadband network for first responders – to give public safety 21st century communication tools to help save lives, solve crimes and keep our communities and emergency responders safe. To do that, FirstNet will build a new Band Class 14 Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN) designed to be reliable, functional, safe and secure, and provide optimal levels of operational capability at all times. For the first time, public safety communications will be based on commercial standards. This will bring the benefits of lower costs, consumer-driven economies of scale and rapid evolution of advanced communication capabilities.
The law that established the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) specified that the network shall be based on the minimum technical requirements on the commercial standards for Long Term Evolution (LTE) service. LTE is the evolution of a proven technology, which is now in its fourth generation. With each generation comes improvement in speed and functionality. Standards work to enhance and evolve 4G LTE is continuing on a global basis. FirstNet is involved in the standards process and working closely with public safety organizations to support the development of standards and functionality that meet the needs of the public safety users that FirstNet will serve. For example, in 2016, FirstNet and others worked with the 3rd Generation Partnership Project to develop and include Mission Critical Voice (MCV) into 3GPP Release 13 Standards. With these standards established, equipment manufacturers can develop universally compatible MCV technology for public safety.
FirstNet broadly defines its LTE network in distinct layers: Core Network, Transport Backhaul, Radio Access Network (RAN) and Public Safety Devices.
FirstNet is responsible for building the evolved packet core network, a key component for ensuring that users have a single interoperable platform nationwide. The core network has the following primary functions: it switches data, processes and reformats information, stores and maintains data and keeps it secure. Applications and services and operational and business support systems also reside in the core network. The core will interface with other state, local and federal networks, including 911 and the Internet. Essentially, the core serves as a common network for all of the United States including the territories and the District of Columbia. The core is connected to radio access networks in each state via the backhaul layer of the network.
Backhaul carries the voice, data and video traffic on the network. Backhaul provides the connections between cell sites and the core wireless broadband network. Backhaul will also connect FirstNet to the Internet and other networks such as 911 centers. Typically these connections are made via fiber optic and microwave technology. To meet the reliability needs of public safety, backhaul will be redundant wherever feasible to ensure that network traffic continues to flow during periods of extreme network demand and stress.
Through its request for information (RFI) process, FirstNet is learning about the existing backhaul capabilities of suppliers and key stakeholders including managed service providers, power utilities, commercial providers and local government agencies and facilities. Whenever possible, FirstNet will work to leverage existing government and commercial backhaul to keep costs down. FirstNet is committed to building a network where multiple transmission paths keep the traffic moving so that first responders can rely on FirstNet.
The RAN portion of the network consists of the radio base station infrastructure that connects to user devices. This includes cell towers as well as mobile hotspots embedded in vehicles that backhaul to the core network over satellite or other types of wireless infrastructure.
Comprehensive RAN planning is required to optimize coverage, capacity and performance for a nationwide network. Initial modeling has shown that tens of thousands of radio base stations are needed to cover at least 99 percent of the population and the national highway system. Population coverage alone won’t suffice for public safety. State by state, FirstNet needs to understand public safety coverage needs.
During consultation , FirstNet will work with each of the states to determine the coverage expectations and priorities that must be included in the RAN deployment plan to enable public safety to meet its mission, no matter where it takes them.
The very circumstances that can require first responders to come to the aid of others can also wreak havoc on RAN sites when first responders need coverage the most. Making a system reliable – one that public safety can trust – requires physical and operational redundancy and hardening.
Most network outages are due to power failures and the loss of data links. To be public safety-grade, FirstNet sites will need redundant power backup that relies on a variety of sources. Power, backhaul, sites and coverage will be designed with the goal of avoiding single points of failure.
Devices are all the user access points that will send and receive information over the network. Everything from smartphones to laptops, tablets, dongles and a wide variety of specialty devices will be developed for FirstNet users. The goal is to create devices that are rugged enough to withstand the many public safety environmental issues, but still be easy to use and convenient to carry. Devices will also have to be easy to administer and secure.
With the potential for millions of users, FirstNet will have the scale and leverage to drive development and procurement of devices at the best possible prices. Scale can also spur interest from a number of new vendors, which can enhance vendor/design diversity, increase competition and help lower prices for public safety devices. In the future, FirstNet will work with industry to develop device types and applications to meet public safety use cases identified by public safety users. FirstNet devices and applications will undergo a variety of testing and certification in areas including interference, operation, environmental factors and security.
Additional information regarding FirstNet’s planned application of LTE is available in the document FirstNet and LTE Overview located on our FAQs & Facts page.
LTE vs. LMR
First responders currently use land mobile radio (LMR) networks for mission critical voice communications. When the nationwide public safety broadband network (NPSBN) is launched, it will not replace their LMR systems. The network is expected to initially transmit data, video, and other high-speed content such as location information and streaming video, as well as non-mission critical voice. Public safety entities will continue to use LMR networks for their mission critical voice needs.
Public Safety Communications Today
During response operations today, law enforcement officers, firefighters, emergency medical services (EMS) teams, and other first responders rely on their LMR networks and radios for mission critical voice communications. LMR networks are designed to meet emergency responders’ unique mission critical requirements and provide guaranteed priority access to responders. In addition to LMR, some emergency responders are using mobile data services and applications provided by commercial carriers to share information and augment their mission critical voice capabilities. This commercial mobile data service, though useful, does not meet mission critical standards and public safety competes with commercial users for access and bandwidth.
When FirstNet launches the NPSBN, the network will initially provide mission‐critical, high‐speed data and video services that will supplement today’s LMR networks. The network is also expected to provide non-mission critical voice at launch. Public safety entities will continue to rely on their LMR networks for mission critical voice features – such as Group Communications and Direct-Mode – that are needed in an emergency response setting. In the near term, public safety entities will need to maintain and/or upgrade their LMR networks, as appropriate.
In the future, FirstNet plans to offer mission critical voice services over the NPSBN – along with video and data – when voice over LTE (VoLTE) functionalities meet or exceed first responders’ mission critical needs. FirstNet has been actively working with the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) to add public safety standards into this worldwide industry-driving commercial standard. In March of 2016, 3GPP adopted Release 13 of these standards which addressed, most notably, Mission Critical Push-To-Talk Voice. Establishing this standard is an important first step in the ability of the NPSBN to support critical voice, however, public safety is still likely to need their critical voice LMR systems for the foreseeable future. Release 13 standards must be incorporated into infrastructure designs, then into fielded equipment, and the local NPSBN network will have to provide suitable coverage for a given public safety agency’s area of operation and reliability needs.
For additional information on this subject, see Land Mobile Radio fact sheet.
Examples of Use
The FirstNet NPSBN will provide a dedicated transport network for public safety professionals to access applications and other data in support of their day-to-day mission and in the case of emergencies. This network will expand public safety’s access to wireless broadband and all its capabilities.
Where available, many public safety agencies already make use of commercial wireless services and a variety of useful “apps” are available. As FirstNet becomes a reality, the reliable broadband access it provides will enable the public safety community to rely upon it. With increased use, new apps will be conceived and become available.
To imagine future possibilities, view some of the links to videos and news articles listed here.
- FirstNet and Next Generation 911
- FirstNet and Emergency Medical Service Providers
- FirstNet and Telecommunicators
- FirstNet and Firefighters
- FirstNet and Law Enforcement
- 5 ways medics could use Google Glass
- Envisioning the Future of Emergency Management: Wildfire
- Firefighter Built His Own Google Glass App (article and embedded video)
Mobile App Strategy
FirstNet envisions an applications development environment that will encourage the development and distribution of useful and vetted public safety applications. Their strategy is comparable to the successful commercial model complete with an “App Store” but with proper certification, reliability, security, and product support as needed and expected by public safety users.
FirstNet’s Application Strategy:
Presently, the commercial model lacks a standards framework for applications sufficient to support public safety interoperability, however FirstNet has outlined steps to close that gap:
- Adopting data and interoperability standards when they become available.
- Encouraging app developers to create middleware solutions that provide seamless access to data that might lack an open, standards-based definition.
- Publishing and standardizing application programming interfaces that enable the creation of apps that leverage network functions such as priority and pre-emption for first responders at times of crisis.
- Using Identity, Credential and Access Management for user authentication and authorization across jurisdictions.
- Creating a developer ecosystem that fosters collaboration and communication between app creators and public safety users.
- Implementing an application test and certification process.
- Encouraging interagency mutual aid agreements to provide for joint use, training and interoperability between agencies that work together often.
The needs of public safety users will evolve over time but FirstNet recognizes that a number of “application enablers” must be supported at the outset:
- Dynamic Prioritization of Users and Applications
- Mobile User Authentication and Single Sign-On
- Local Control
- Diverse Agencies and Target Market Size considerations
- Support for Bring Your Own Device
- Creating a Development Community
- Application Security
- Application and Developer Certification
- Identity, Credential and Access Management
The public safety community must have confidence in the applications they use. In addition to providing developer tools, FirstNet’s applications strategy includes a certification process to provide this confidence.
FirstNet's Application Certification Process
Although FirstNet’s app development strategy is still in its formative stage, mobile application development has been progressing on its own (albeit ahead of the planned certification process). Visit the APCO Application Community website to see early examples of applications already developed for use by the public safety community.
Note: For additional information about FirstNet’s Applications Strategy, visit the FirstNet Reading Room, and download the NPSBN Application Strategy (found under the Technical Papers folder).