The future of public safety communications is riding on the FirstNet network. Traditionally first responders are land mobile radio (LMR) users. However, it’s clear the transition to LTE cellular is on the horizon. A communications app developer recently described smartphones as a “shadow IP” that almost every employee in the U.S. has access to, yet not all businesses take advantage of this capability, though PTT over cellular (PoC) multi-functionality is fast replacing LMR in the commercial sector. Luckily for public safety, FirstNet’s nationwide broadband network provides a serious leg-up in advancement, but I believe devices that do more than just talk will be the primary driver of its evolution.
One small, but easily surmountable hurdle is that agencies require more robust PTT cellular devices than standard smart phones. Over the next few years, I’m sure there will be a major bump in FirstNet-geared hardware development for first responders.
The growing desire to aggregate tasks into one device in both private and public sectors is creating an even bigger window for software. Consequently, I foresee Internet of Things (IoT)/LTE business will be accelerated more by application development than by hardware. To illustrate my point, visualize an officer who has a body cam (or multiple cams) connected via fiber optic cable to a new ruggedized wireless device designed specifically for police use. The device can accesses a variety of apps, including a video management app, a location tracking app, and a facial recognition app. Or maybe it uses just one “super app” that ties them all together for “bad guy” recognition, as well as automatic photo/video capture with time, location, and other metadata.
Apps on Steroids
As a technologist, it’s my opinion that agencies will soon be able to receive much more tactical/situational information from all active incidents, including verbal transmissions, without ever touching a communications device. Why couldn’t this new device have an app that knows when an officer has been dispatched, when to automatically trigger the camera, that sends alerts such as shots fired or officer down, enables microphone, and exchange messages, all while monitoring every movement even if they leave the vehicle or draw a weapon? It would be like Siri or Alexa on steroids.
If app sophistication continues advancing at light speed, even for public safety users, the voice function could potentially become a much lower-priority than data that supports a plethora of new capabilities, And some of these same apps might also include messaging and creating a simultaneous communications loop. The entire world now uses cellphones for data more than voice, so why should we expect first responders to be any different? Of course, public safety requires “rock solid” technology, but developers are rising to the challenge.
PTT/PoC and IoT Growth
Cellular market growth has created an almost insatiable demand for all sorts of new products and accessories in a wide range of industries. Pryme has seen a 30% jump in PTT products for smart devices with PoC applications, and there’s no end in sight. We already support 28 different PTT apps, and our full line currently spans 5500 unique products. The more applications developed, the more devices deployed, which means the greater the need for end-user customization, an area in which Pryme excels.
For example, because some users find wireless PTT unacceptable due to cost, pairing and charging issues, someone needed to develop an alternative to access PoC applications on smart devices. Wired accessories are typically more reliable, but wouldn’t work because many cellphones and tablets were not designed for PTT. Though it took a couple of years, Pryme managed to engineer a workaround and, at IWCE 2018, introduced the PICO wired surveillance kit. This kit gives customers a new way to dependably manage PTT capabilities and PoC apps with a wired accessory, but without any of the aforementioned wireless issues. However, wireless is still very useful and I envision future technologies that will result in better and better wireless accessories. Pryme is already starting to add near field pairing (NFC), which automatically connects headsets/PTT buttons to phones or tablets.
Proliferating Smart Tech
Every minute of the day, smart technologies such as augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and artificial intelligence (AI), are being incorporated into more communications solutions for an array of niche uses. With augmented reality, instead of traveling to trade shows or customers, sales reps will be able to share a link to a 360-degree experience of their products and demos. In field services, AR is already starting to proliferate. Simply by pointing a smartphone at a machine, a technician can receive training and repair instructions superimposed over the image on the machine. And artificial intelligence is spreading like wildfire in a multitude of ways, including serving as a 24/7 watchdog to identify potential system issues before they become problems. Who knows? Eventually smart tech may completely change the way first responders operate. All we need is that “killer app.”
The National Network Pie
The arrival of FirstNet’s nationwide network has opened up a huge market opportunity, which could prompt companies like Honeywell, General Dynamics, and Boeing, just to name a few, to enter the public safety communications space with new sector specific devices. Until now, I think these huge conglomerates viewed the two-way radio industry as too small and fragmented to even consider. Now that the market opportunity is nationwide and will become more standards based, don’t be surprised if you see major new competitors entering this playing field.
For these really big companies, the design, installation and maintenance of networks is where the real profits lie and FirstNet is a network opportunity that includes many valuable features. Yet, for this network to be successful, technologies must be adopted that provide the key features high priority users require, including reliability, security, low latency, device-to-device and group calling, talker ID, and so on. In addition, more progressive capabilities must be offered such as location and data services, interconnection with legacy systems, console interfaces and, lest we forget, more specialized apps.
Will there be bumps in the broadband road along the way? Sure. Will those issues be resolved? Absolutely. Remember, without roads, we have no cars, and without a powerful yet affordable wireless network, there will be no advanced communications. Hang on tight, it’s going to be a heck of a ride
Dave George, chief engineer and president of Pryme Radio, holds 29 patents and is the inventor of multiple award-winning products. An RF engineer for over 40 years, George is a key influencer in the public sector’s transition from radio to broadband. In addition to running a successful communications accessory company, George also coaches a Southern California high school robotics team.