« The End of Net Neutrality Regulation COULD Mean the End of Last-Mile Oligopolies | Main | Marijuana and Congress »

January 04, 2018

AT&T-Run Network Announces “Ruthless Preemption”

If you think this is some nightmare result of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voting to rescind the 2015 “Net Neutrality” regulations, think again. “Ruthless Preemption” is a feature of a so-far non-existent network called FirstNet for which the federal government has given AT&T a 25-year operating agreement, the exclusive right to sell FirstNet services to first responders, and lots of valuable radio spectrum.

While we technical types have been debating Net Neutrality regulation as a mechanism for curbing the last-mile oligarchy, AT&T has managed to walk away with another big gob of access spectrum in return for the slow deployment of an inferior service that addresses a need which no longer exists and leaves the real needs of first responders without a solution.

The genesis for FirstNet was an interoperability problem in the response to 9/11. Police and fire department radios were on different frequencies; they couldn’t talk to each other. The 9/11 commission recommended an interoperable network be built for first responders. Nothing happened until 2012 when Congress added FirstNet and a bureaucracy to run it to the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of that year. Still none of this network has been built; late last year AT&T was awarded the contract.

But a lot has changed sine 9/11/2001. First responders, like the rest of us, have smartphones; they can even use their smartphones as walkie talkies and can look at citizen-uploaded or drone-taken videos of whatever catastrophe they are responding to. Fire Department smartphones can talk to police smartphones can talk to ambulance smartphones. Computers in first responder vehicles stay online on the cellular network. FirstNet boasts that it is built on LTE, the technology now used for almost all cellular communication. So, with the interoperability problem gone, why do we need FirstNet?

There is the “Ruthless Preemption”, the cyber equivalent of a wailing siren and a flashing light which assures that that first responder communications won’t be caught in a digital traffic jam. But we don’t need a new network to implement preemption where it is justified. In fact, if the first responders are on the same network as everyone else, there will be much more bandwidth available for them to preempt if needed.

In rural areas of the US we are painfully aware that there is not universal cell coverage. FirstNet says it will build out to 95% coverage; but first responders go everywhere. One of the very real problems we all face in an emergency is that cell towers are destroyed or can’t operate for long without grid power (see Puerto Rico or Vermont after Irene). AT&T says they may have mobile towers to deploy but hasn’t committed to a response time. The solution is obvious, but it isn’t FirstNet. First responders should have satellite phones. Satellites are not affected by local catastrophes; they are solar powered; and satellite service is available everywhere except under a rock.

The next argument for FirstNet is that it will help increase broadband penetration in rural areas. Problem is that the FirstNet’s agreement with the US Department of Commerce only requires a download speed of 768kbs and upload of 256kbs. The FCC minimum definition of broadband is 32 times faster on download and 12 times faster for upload. This is fake “broadband”; it won’t solve the economic and social problems caused by lack of broadband in rural areas. At FirstNet minimum speeds no one is going to be uploading or downloading incident-scene videos. And only 95% coverage is promised. The rural problem is exactly that last 5%.

Terry LaValley, chairman of the Vermont Public Safety Broadband Commission, which recommended that Vermont join FirstNet, said “The speeds are a minimum which may or may not support a voice call.” He went on, according to VTDigger, to say  that these speeds allow sending and receiving texts. Text messaging in 95% of places some years in the future is hardly a breakthrough for first responders. I have a device from Garmin called an InReach. It costs $300 retail. For $50 dollars/month (also retail) I can use it to send and receive unlimited texts anywhere in the world where the sky can be seen. It uses satellite so no danger of local towers being invisible or out of service. It also sends a trail of bread crumbs so people can track me on Google maps. I’m not sure why a device like this isn’t built into every first responder vehicle. We could have that today.

Writing in The Atlantic, Steven Brill says “the prize for the most wasteful post-91/11 initiative arguably should go to FirstNet.“

TechCrunch says:

“For AT&T, the victory provides a new source of revenue from local police and fire departments, who will presumably come to rely on FirstNet for their emergency communications. It also gets a serious boost in its spectrum, along with free cash from taxpayers. But for all of us, it seems billions of dollars will be spent to create a specialist comm channel, when existing technologies are more than up to the task of providing these highly reliable services.”

Even though all 50 states have signed on to FirstNet (free money and draconian threats), I think the only visible results will be more spectrum for AT&T to sell in urban areas and no significant new buildout in rural areas. First responders will meet their real needs with devices which use the cell network when they can and satellites and perhaps mesh networks when they have to. Rescinding “Net Neutrality” means that prioritization and preemption if needed can be built into the broader Internet and cell networks to avoid digital gridlock in an emergency. Most first responders will never sign FirstNet contracts when their needs can be met more quickly and more effectively with non-AT&T solutions.

I hope the false promises of this boondoggle don’t lead anyone to say “mission accomplished” as far as first responder communication or rural broadband deployment.

| Comments (View)

Recent Posts

Renewables Are a Means, Not an End

A Surprising Letter from David Koch

Software Nerd Goes Hard

Protecting Civil Liberties

Vermont Trailers v. the Tanker from Siberia


blog comments powered by Disqus
Blog powered by TypePad
Member since 01/2005