What to Expect (or not) at APCO 2017

Each summer, public safety communications officials converge at APCO International’s Annual Conference & Expo to discuss trends, get educated and check out the latest offers from vendors and service providers. This year, APCO 2017 comes to Denver, Colorado between August 13 and 16.

This year's conference marks a turning-point, as attendees arrive for the first time with FirstNet as an operational network in parts of the US. To be sure, the FirstNet operation is a re-badged AT&T offer that incorporates quality of service and priority, but it represents the start of a national public safety network. As exciting as this development is, however, uncertainty remains. Here is my take on what we are likely to see -- and not see -- at this year's APCO conference.

Sure to Show

Emerging applications that benefit from robust public safety networks.  A scan of the 250 plus exhibitors reveals a number of interesting cloud-based application suppliers featuring information tools that make public safety operations safer and more effective. FirstNet is an important enabler for these offers, as QoS and priority mechanisms are vital prerequisite for public safety moving towards mobile cloud-hosted applications.  Examples of applications that stand out include BuildingDNA, EagleView, Motorola Solutions' CommandCentral suite and Mutualink.

A spotlight on the importance of the FirstNet core network. Both sides of the public-private partnership -- FirstNet and AT&T -- will use the APCO event to highlight the value of a single national core network. While radio access network builds receive significant attention as the nation's governors evaluate opt-in/opt-out choices, FirstNet has made it clear that a single national core network is mandatory. Some contenders for supplying opt-out states take issue with this stance, making it imperative that FirstNet and AT&T communicate the reasons behind a single core. To that end, look for a theme centered around trust and security.

An accelerating FirstNet bandwagon. The public safety community fought hard for Band 14 spectrum and championed FirstNet progress following the 2012 legislation. Rightly or wrongly, the community strives to speak with a single voice on public safety communications modernization. Look for sustained enthusiasm for the FirstNet mission and a continued push for coast-to-coast state opt-in choices. The effort matters, as governors -- political animals that they are -- take into account the degree of FirstNet support across their state's public safety leadership.

Missing in Action?

Deeper dives on the FirstNet/AT&T public-private partnership. Information on the nuts and bolts of the technology, processes, pricing, coverage, deployable policies and device policies is tough to come by. Some details are available but locked behind the closed door of the state portal. Other details are missing even from that venue. With the close of state plan feedback on August 4, FirstNet and AT&T remain in the thick of preparing responses for a timely September response. They cannot tip their hands during this process, so we will not see much in the way of details that many seek. 

A wave of new Band 14 devices. Mobile network device suppliers are a conservative lot. Costly investment in device design, test and approvals will not ramp up until device builders become convinced a new band is in-fact getting deployed at scale in real networks.  Not surprisingly, considering the FirstNet PPP contract was only signed in March, Band 14's footprint remains scant. Furthermore, selection of AT&T as a partner looms as a potential impediment to Band 14 device designs. The national operator is signaling that it may not deploy Band 14 widely until it is needed. That could be a troublesome issue that can hobble interoperable communications near the border or in jurisdictions looking to deploy Band 14 nodes for coverage gaps.

Clarity on a FirstNet application framework. A large part of FirstNet's mission revolves around fostering a rich set of public safety applications that go beyond commercial off-the-shelf cloud-based applications on the market today. Both FirstNet and AT&T point to a coming application store serving as a trusted source of software functionality for mobile devices serving a public safety mission. This goal, however, requires a large effort facing hurdles missing in application development environments that drove the success of Google Android and Apple IoS application markets. Developers require comprehensive Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), toolkits and development sandboxes. FirstNet will need to find a way to have its application store co-exist with a closed Apple application environment. And, of course, the non-trivial identity management and authentication framework will need to be in place and proven. Clearly, a FirstNet application framework is in very early days.

APCO 2017 visitors will gather to consider the new world of public safety communications in a FirstNet era. While not all questions will get answered during the conference days, the rich set of professional development sessions, plenty of opportunities for face-to-face discussions and an exhibition floor filled with creative offers will make this event a must-see for anyone who cares about the future of public safety communications.