When we talk with public safety officials about FirstNet, it sounds like a good idea. To embrace it in practice, though, most officials indicate two fundamental hurdles that FirstNet must overcome to win their business. First, the network needs to be affordable. Cities and towns do not have extra money to pay for user fees. Second, the network needs to be at least as good as what they currently have (and the primary consideration for this is reliable coverage). If it is not affordable or does not provide reliable coverage where first responders operate, it will be hard to make the case to switch to FirstNet services.
In our last blog, we covered the costs of the NPSBN. In this blog, we’ll address this second element of the decision making process – coverage when and where public safety operates.
Is the NPSBN going to cover my town?
Yes, but to what extent, we do not know quite yet. In the January 13 request for proposal (RFP), FirstNet includes a map of coverage objectives where FirstNet expects a successful bidder to provide wireless data coverage nationwide. This map includes nearly the entirety of Massachusetts, including all of western and central Massachusetts and nearly all of the Cape and islands.
Is wireless data coverage going to be any better that what we currently have?
It should be, but we will have to wait and see. Claiming coverage is one thing. Actually having reliable, usable coverage is another.
Based on the FirstNet coverage objectives map, many of the known coverage gaps in Massachusetts that currently exist with traditional wireless data carriers should be addressed by FirstNet. That said, we will only know once we see the details of the winning bidder’s plan for Massachusetts and then later test the deployment of the network to see if it lives up to those plans.
There is also a consideration about the degree to which coverage will exist. In planning with FirstNet, there have been four general categories of coverage discussed (not all of which will be available everywhere in Massachusetts):
- In Building Coverage: This is the most important but hardest and costliest to achieve. This coverage means that first responders will be able to use their mobile devices within large buildings. As you know from your smartphone, in building coverage varies considerably based on your carrier and your placement within a building. We would expect in building coverage in densely populated areas and for important public safety locations (e.g., fire stations, town halls, malls, K-12 buildings, hospitals, etc.) throughout the Commonwealth.
- Handheld Coverage: This is the coverage that exists when a user has a device outside of a vehicle or building. Think of this as walking on the street and using your smartphone. If it works, you have “handheld coverage,” if not, you don’t. Given existing commercial coverage, we would expect this quality of coverage for most of Massachusetts.
- In Vehicle Coverage: A lot of first responder activities occur within a vehicle or within proximity of a first response vehicle. This is an area where FirstNet is planning on taking advantage of new technologies, in particular Vehicular Network Systems (VNS), to expand coverage. These VNSs would allow wireless connectivity in areas where handheld coverage would not be available or reliable. The VNS would, in turn, allow the first responder to operate outside the vehicle and connect to the FirstNet network through the more powerful vehicular network system. Given FirstNet’s coverage objectives maps, this level of coverage should cover almost all of the Commonwealth, including many coastal areas.
- Deployable Coverage: In very rural or wilderness areas, deployable coverage (like connection to satellites, deployment of cell sites on wheels, or use of unmanned aerial vehicles) may be needed. Because Massachusetts is the third most densely populated state, there should be less of a need for deployable coverage compared to most other states. We expect to have available a range of deployable options to supplement traditional wireless data coverage, when needed.
Early in the planning for the NPSBN, FirstNet provided a map of where coverage objectives are most concentrated. You can view this Massachusetts FirstNet Baseline Coverage Objectives Map online on our website. We also provided 73 additional data layers to FirstNet to help expand their understanding of our specific coverage needs here in Massachusetts, including a detailed analysis of where 911 calls for service originate, how populations fluctuate during vacation seasons, and where major public events are held.
Let us know your questions.
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