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Decades after 9/11, push-to-talk remains a first responder challenge

BK Technologies, an equipment vendor to the public safety community, this week announced a new, interoperable push-to-talk (PTT) service for first responders.

The offering is "designed to eliminate today's barriers and enable all first responders to communicate regardless of which cellular network they use or PTToC [PTT over cellular] service they subscribe to, or even first responders who do not subscribe to a PTToC service," according to the company.

The need for such a service in 2022 is noteworthy considering it was the "inadequate communications among responding agencies" during the terrorist attacks in New York City on September 11, 2001, that sparked a national discussion about first responder communications. FirstNet – the nationwide broadband network backed by AT&T – arose from those discussions.

"What is concerning is that the goal of voice interoperability with push to talk remains elusive," said Ken Rehbehn of CritComm Insights, a longtime analyst in public safety communications.

According to Rehbehn, first responders today must often navigate a complex communications environment stretching from narrowband, voice-only land mobile radio (LMR) networks to state-of-the-art 5G networks. No single network offers a full suite of reliable, interoperable communications services.

"We do not have a force today that brings these solutions together," Rehbehn said.

Concerns about FirstNet

In the cellular realm, there's ongoing debate over the role that FirstNet plays and how exactly the operation should interact with rival offerings from companies such as T-Mobile and Verizon.

For example, T-Mobile recently argued that FirstNet "has not fulfilled all of its promises to the public safety community and the American public as required." Part of T-Mobile's concerns center on the ability of a T-Mobile customer to communicate with a FirstNet customer.

"FirstNet must provide interoperability that ensures all public safety users are able to communicate with one another during times of emergency," T-Mobile argued.

Other groups, like the National Sheriffs' Association (NSA), are also concerned.

"Congress' overarching goal in creating this [FirstNet] network was to ensure interoperable communications for all of the nation's first responders; however, AT&T and FirstNet have refused to support full interoperability with other networks serving public safety," NSA argued in a recent filing with the FCC. "This refusal places the safety of public safety personnel and the broader public at risk."

The association continued: "Emergencies such as the December 2020 Nashville bombing and Hurricane Ida demonstrate why first responders need to know that they can communicate with each other – no matter the device, network, or platform they are using."

Such concerns are not new. Verizon has been arguing for FirstNet interoperability for years.

What is interoperability?

For its part, FirstNet argues that it is already providing interoperable services.

"Communications are exchanged freely among FirstNet users across jurisdictions and public safety disciplines, as well as between FirstNet users and subscribers of other networks, and those communications receive the benefit of FirstNet's priority and preemption services while traversing the FirstNet network," FirstNet wrote in a recent filing to the FCC.

"The FirstNet Authority has no control over the services provided while communications are traversing other networks," FirstNet added.

At the heart of the issue is a debate over the meaning of interoperability. FirstNet customers can call the phone numbers of T-Mobile customers and vice versa, but other services – like PTT over cellular – might not be interoperable.

And that's why BK Technologies is stepping in.

"As PTToC solutions have become more sophisticated and operate on a variety of platforms, interoperability between different technologies and service providers is a big challenge today," said John Suzuki, CEO of BK Technologies, in a release. "Our InteropONE offering provides a practical solution to this challenge, enhancing communications capabilities between first responders who arrive at events from near or far, as well as between different emergency agencies."

Rehbehn of CritComm Insights agreed. "They have come up with a clever solution" for PTT communications on cellular, he said.

But, as with all such solutions, it will only be useful to the company's customers, and only within the confines of the vendor's products and services.

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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