For FirstNet, the vehicle is the hub. Here’s how to get FirstNet antennas right.

Fri, 11/15/2019 - 09:33

In 2017, the first contract for a FirstNet network was awarded to AT&T, and in 2018, the first implementation went live, serving 9000 first responders. This represented the beginning proof-of-concept for a smarter, more robust public safety network first recommended almost two decades ago by the 9/11 Commission. And while it’s taken a long time to arrive, FirstNet is finally here, and pressure is increasing in states, towns, and cities to begin to take advantage of this new means of connecting first responders and improving outcomes in emergency scenarios.

That pressure can be felt as a rush to upgrade existing systems and bring them under the FirstNet umbrella. But for reliable, well-performing connectivity that lives depend on, there are some critical considerations to be made. There are physical design constraints, RF environmental challenges, and regulatory priorities which must be considered in order to bring a legacy public safety vehicles into the FirstNet ecosystem. 

Getting into FirstNet successfully means not cutting corners and designing wisely. Here’s a few concerns to keep in mind when upgrading emergency vehicles into the public safety ecosystem of the future.

Space Concerns – Adding More into the Same Box

From the outset, integrators may assume that a FirstNet wireless system and antenna are a simple pull and replace: take out some hardware and insert new hardware. The truth is much more complicated, especially as regards the antenna. It’s important to remember that the FirstNet gateway can be of widely variable sizes, and antennas may present unique challenges.

While newer antennas (like those associated with FirstNet) may have a much smaller profile, their entrance hole into the vehicle may be larger or smaller. That might mean having to drill a larger hole into the vehicle, or find a way to plug open space around the entrance. This means creating a weather-tight solution, which is critical to avoiding hardware damage.

This is just one example of where legacy hardware and new hardware may mismatch. A FirstNet gateway may not fit in the mounting location that previous wireless hardware was installed. There may be multiple holes in the vehicle where many antennas were replaced with a single antenna, requiring those holes to be patched. It’s critical to think ahead on this, to avoid last-minute concerns that prevent a proper hardware integration.

RF Modeling – New Frequencies and Protocols Behaving Differently

Both inside of and outside of the vehicle, wireless behavior interacts with surrounding materials and objects, and a vehicle is a large and impactful blocker to RF signals. This is already well known, and was likely considered when the initial wireless communications system was installed. But a new FirstNet-ready system will bring concerns of its own.

Firstly, the new system is operating in completely different frequency ranges than legacy system. Where the old system is likely fully reliant on UHF / VHF frequencies, the new LTE system is utilizing much higher frequencies, which are likely to interact with the environment of the vehicle in completely different ways. New antennas and new antenna cables will carry signal and respond to interference differently. The entire system, which was first built on one set of assumptions, now much cater to a very different set of assumptions.

The solution to this is a step many integrators would rather skip: RF modeling of the vehicle environment. It’s a misunderstanding that RF modeling is a costly or time-consuming process that delays integration. Quite the opposite, modeling the vehicle’s performance creates a greater understanding that can dramatically reduce time spent on redesigns and last-minute fixes.

RF modeling provides a greater assurance of solid wireless performance in and around the vehicle. It will identify zones of weak signal, sources of interference, and more. When it comes to emergency vehicles, this is critical.

Don’t Assume – Know What’s Certified

Many antennas and gateways are sold and specifically marketed for FirstNet integration, for many reasons: they may support multiple protocols, be designed for outdoor use, and carry other features that make them ideal for a FirstNet design. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that those marketed use cases mean the hardware is certified for regulatory approvals. This can mean waiting until the end the design process to begin considering certification – a very costly mistake.

In fact, navigating compliance is a process best undertaken with an experienced wireless partner. Regulatory compliance can be complicated, with lots of hidden pitfalls along the way, and an experienced partner can identify those pitfalls long before they arrive. Testing early and often can ensure that a wireless system is maintaining compliant behavior as the design changes and adapts on the road to market.

A trusted wireless partner knows where to look in the system to find potential vulnerabilities or weaknesses, and can save costly redesign work down the line. All of this means a better performing system that takes less time and money to design, and which can be brought confidently to market.

Our Solution – Robust, Multi-Port Antennas for Design Flexibility

Laird Connectivity’s offerings for FirstNet antennas take a wide variety of design considerations into account by providing a multi-port solution that services many protocols at once. Our Gar and Barracuda antennas are designed specifically for FirstNet and the types of wireless that must be served by a fully-featured FirstNet integration: Legacy VHF/UHF, 3G, 4G, ISM, CBRS, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS/GNSS.

With so many available ports, and in a low-profile attractive form factor with IP67 certification, the Gar and Barracuda antennas make it easy to support a huge number of concurrent wireless signals all in one neatly-designed antenna package. All of this comes with our 5-year warranty, unique in the industry.

Learn more about our Gar and Barracuca FirstNet-ready antennas.