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FirstNet officials outline vision for organization’s testing operations in Colorado lab

Urgent Communications
By Donny Jackson

January 13, 2017

FirstNet’s new laboratory will conduct testing to ensure that core public-safety devices, network features, capabilities and services will meet the reliability and performance requirements of first responders, although details will not be revealed until the nationwide contractor award is made, according to FirstNet officials.

Jeff Bratcher, FirstNet’s chief technology officer (CTO), said the lab in Boulder, Colo., will be used to test public-safety-specific devices, equipment, applications and capabilities not found in commercial broadband networks.

“We’re not going to duplicate anything that’s already being done in the broader commercial space for wireless, LTE or anything in the future,” Bratcher said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “We’re really only focusing on the public-safety aspects of the network, and those key services and features.

“We’ll obviously be doing testing to make sure that it’s safe for networks and all the things that go along with introducing something into a wireless broadband network, whether it’s devices or applications.”

Some key network capabilities that will be tested in the FirstNet lab will be the ability for the much-anticipated nationwide public-safety broadband network to provide key capabilities like quality of services, priority and preemption (QPP) soon after the contractor award is made, Bratcher said. During the next few years, the lab also is expected to house testing of services like mission-critical voice, he said.

These features will be validated in the lab before being deployed in the field, but it not certain whether successful completion of test procedures—from performance metrics to cybersecurity assurance—will be recognized in the form of a certification or some other manner, Bratcher said.

“A lot of those details have yet to be ironed out, because we obviously have to take into account our partner and what they’re going to have as part of their processes,” he said.

Device certification will be part of FirstNet, as stipulated by law, Bratcher said. FirstNet’s enabling legislation calls for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to compile a list of certified devices, but the FirstNet lab is expected to conduct the testing, he said.

“We’ve actually worked and developed some processes with NIST to do that capability here in the lab at FirstNet and work with them to have them finalize that list, per their duties under that part of the law,” Bratcher said.

Certain public-safety-specific applications also will be tested in the FirstNet lab, with the help of users in the first-responder community, Bratcher said.

“We’re not going to test every potential app that could be out there that could potentially be used on not only on this network but a wireless broadband network,” Bratcher said. “That’s why we’re really going to focus on those that are leveraging the key features, like quality of service, priority and preemption. Those will trigger application development to take advantage of those key services and features.

“We do envision those functions being validated and tested here. And it’s not just [tested] by the engineers here with FirstNet and the engineers here with our partner, but also with public safety. We want to make sure that it’s meeting the needs that they may have, so we also envision public safety being involved in the lab, assisting with testing and trying things out with us.”

Mike Van Zuiden, FirstNet’s director of labs, said testing can begin soon after the contractor award is made.

“The lab is ready,” Van Zuiden said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “I’ve got RF cables rolled up on the ladder racks, waiting for eNodeBs to be dropped in.”

Equipment in the lab will be the same gear used in the FirstNet system, allowing testing of network capabilities and performance in various simulated conditions. The 4,624-square-foot facility includes a user area with 12 test benches, “so we should have capacity to test multiple public-safety features simultaneously,” Van Zuiden said.

While the FirstNet lab will be used to test capabilities that will be implemented in the nationwide public-safety broadband network, Bratcher said more forward-looking capabilities will be tested in the labs at Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR), which also is located in Boulder, Colo.

“[PSCR officials are] really looking at that 5-10 year timeframe, how they can accelerate the R&D for public-safety broadband specifically,” Bratcher said, noting PSCR initiatives in areas like augmented reality. “We will have the capabilities here [in the FirstNet lab] to test out those initial concepts from the actual equipment that will be used as part of the nationwide broadband network.

“There won’t be duplication, in my mind, because we’re going to be focused—with our partner—on what’s going on within the network now, as it gets deployed and enhanced over the next 25 years. They’re going to be working on that research-and-development arm to bring in and accelerate mission-critical voice and some of the user interface and location-based-services capabilities that public safety needs as part of this network.”

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