FirstNet helping to develop mobile communications systems as part of nationwide network

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The organization behind a national effort to build an interoperable broadband communications network for police, firefighters, paramedics and other first responders is also looking to develop mobile systems that would provide temporary coverage for emergency personnel when they're outside the network.

A July 13 blog post from the First Responder Network Authority's chief technology officer outlined the features of such a mobile communications unit, or MCU, and how they would operate.

FirstNet, which refers both to the network and the independent governing body within the Commerce Department overseeing its development, is currently coordinating with other organizations to research deployable platforms and ensure that the MCU concept is prioritized to support commercial availability of it, according to the post, adding that there two key elements of the concept.

"First, MCUs are built into first responder vehicles that are used every day, so MCUs are there when first responders need them, without calling for a conventional deployable to be sent to the incident," according to the post. "Second, the MCU also supports local and remote communications when first responders are outside of terrestrial coverage."

And if an incident gets larger, the first responders can use these mobile systems to handle communications with other arriving first responders on any portable device that they use and the MCU should last as long as needed during an incident.

These MCUs can also be used with alternative systems, including deployable aerial communications architecture such as balloons or drones, cell on light trucks, cell on wheels, and system on wheels.

The nationwide FirstNet network is supposed to address the decades-long problems among first responder groups across various jurisdictions that have been unable to communicate with each other with their proprietary systems. About $7 billion in proceeds from recent federal spectrum auctions have been earmarked to build out the network although recent reports from congressional investigators have pegged development and operational costs between $12 billion to $47 billion over the first decade.

The blog post said the MCU concept would likely comprise several technologies such as:

  • An in-vehicle router that would use a terrestrial network as a wide area network for local area communications.
  • A satellite modem and antenna that would automatically provide coverage when first responders travel outside terrestrial network coverage and would be able to "withstand extreme environmental conditions."
  • A local eNodeB and antenna that would act like a remote base station for other users when first responders are outside LTE – which stands for long-term evolution, a standard for wireless communications – coverage or when more local coverage is needed.
  • A local evolved packet core elements and applications to provide a converged voice and data networking framework to connect LTE network users.

The blog post also provided a sketch of what a functional architecture might look like and also listed two relevant standards within the 3rd Generation Partnership Project, or 3GPP, which is a global effort to develop standards for commercial cellular systems.

For more:
- read the FirstNet blog post on the Mobile Communications Unit

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