Emerging Technology Allows New Updates with a Click
While FirstNet, part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, was founded a decade ago, the network didn’t start taking shape until 2017, when AT&T won the contract to build it using a chunk of wireless bandwidth in the 700-megahertz spectrum (band 14). In the years since, AT&T has been adding purpose-built FirstNet cell sites throughout the country, such as the 1,500 in Illinois, over which FirstNet-certified wireless devices enjoy priority access and service.
Stephenson County uses Cradlepoint IBR900 wireless routers installed in patrol cars to give officers enhanced FirstNet access. They use FirstNet-enabled Samsung Galaxy S20 smartphones or ruggedized flip phones to share information, and if their Motorola SmartConnect STARCOM radios lose coverage, they automatically connect to FirstNet via the Cradlepoint routers.
“FirstNet, combined with the Cradlepoint NetCloud service, has been a big timesaver,” Nesemeier says. “New Cradlepoint routers are automatically programmed by NetCloud once they’re activated, and any updates are only a few clicks away.”
For investigators and other administrators not normally in squad cars, Stephenson County uses Netgear Nighthawk MR1100 mobile routers attached to mobile PCs with serial cables, allowing access to a wider variety of applications. It’s a trend FirstNet executives see increasing across compatible solutions.
“More agencies are using FirstNet devices for data-rich applications, such as computer-aided dispatch and record management systems,” Hobson says. “And with more streaming video, especially from fixed cameras used to get a view of what’s going on, that trend is only going to grow.”
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FirstNet's Role in Responding to the Pandemic
By October 2022, FirstNet had reached over 23,000 public safety agencies on the network. Ford County, Kan., added its name to the list in 2020 when pandemic lockdowns led to an overload of the area’s wireless networks.
“As soon as stay-at-home orders cleared out schools and businesses, the networks were overwhelmed, and it impacted our ability to make simple calls,” says Elliot Linke, the county’s director of emergency communications.
Initially, Linke resorted to Wireless Priority Service, a federal program that gives authorized users special access to make cellular calls. “I ended up using WPS just to call dispatch, which is unheard of,” he says.
The next day, as the National Guard showed up in Ford County in response to COVID-19 and needed its own communications setup, FirstNet began delivering phones and devices to get fire and EMS workers — and guard members themselves — online. “Overnight, we had phones, modems, all sorts of technology that we deployed as rapidly as possible,” Linke says.
Like Stephenson County, Ford County installed Cradlepoint routers in a variety of vehicles — police cars, ambulances and some fire trucks. “We’re right around 90 modems deployed now, and we’ll probably expand that,” Linke says.
In ambulances, Ford County EMS is able to transmit electrocardiogram data from patients to hospitals over FirstNet so doctors are better prepared when an ambulance arrives. Elsewhere in the field, Ford County has begun transmitting video footage from its DJI drones over FirstNet to give first responders better situational awareness during large fires.
More recently, Ford County has taken advantage of a new FirstNet solution to enhance in-building coverage, the Cell Booster Pro. “It’s plug-and-play, kind of like your router at home, and works on band 14 to give users the full suite of FirstNet capabilities, like quality of service, priority and pre-emption,” says Hobson. “When users are in government buildings or back in their headquarters, they don’t have to switch back and forth between FirstNet and Wi-Fi.”
“We’ve got 10 of the devices, and we’re installing them in locations like the county jail, the sheriff’s office and the fire department,” Linke says. “They cover 15,000 square feet each, and in our experience, that’s probably an understatement. The difference is immediate and profound.”