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Public safety officials from Hyannis Fire speak with FirstNet Authority representatives while on an emergency response boat off the coast of Massachusetts.

FirstNet Authority releases aviation and maritime case study for public safety broadband

October 18, 2023

First responders respond to incidents in all types of environments—on land, in the air, and on water—and they need to be able to communicate wherever the mission takes them. Most ground-based missions are covered by existing cell infrastructure, while aerial or maritime missions typically push the boundaries of current wireless broadband solutions.

That’s why the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet Authority) established a working group to study public safety wireless broadband mission requirements when operating in the air and on the water. The group sought to understand how public safety currently uses broadband for aviation and maritime operations and how it could be used in these environments in the future.

As a result of this study, the FirstNet Authority published the Public Safety Aviation and Maritime Case Study outlining public safety’s broadband-related needs for aerial and maritime operations.

Understanding broadband for aviation and maritime

The Public Safety Aviation and Maritime Case Study is a result of efforts that began in January 2022. The FirstNet Authority convened public safety and technical experts from across the organization to research broadband use in the air and on the water.

The working group had the goals of:

  • Outlining key operational challenges of using FirstNet during aviation and maritime missions
  • Identifying devices and software currently used in these two environments
  • Understanding how the FirstNet network could be used during various public safety missions in the future

This study reflects the FirstNet Authority’s commitment to understanding public safety’s operational needs and using them to drive network requirements and enhancements. 

Engaging with aviation and maritime leaders

The case study is based on targeted feedback from aviation and maritime units in public safety agencies across the nation. Over the course of six months, the working group conducted a series of engagements, including virtual engagements with 20 aviation and 12 maritime units. Of the aviation units, 14 included unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, programs. To gain a hands-on perspective of the units, the working group also conducted on-site engagements with two public safety aviation units and two public safety maritime units.

Through these engagements, the working group captured critical information about how public safety agencies are communicating in aviation and maritime environments today and what mission requirements they have for the future.

Situational awareness in aviation and maritime environments

The study underscored the importance of situational awareness provided by public safety aviation, UAS, and maritime units to build a better common operational picture for Incident Command staff and decision makers.

Just as with operations on land, operations in the air and on water rely on having reliable access to information. Almost unanimously, the interviewees identified the need for enhanced situational awareness, both for aviation and maritime units and their partners on the ground. The ability to share data like photos and video with responders on the ground, in the air, or on water is critical to creating a common operating picture. This allows for more informed, data-driven decision-making.

Communications needs in the air and on water

When considering the benefits of wireless broadband, each type of program identified specific ways that their operations could potentially be enhanced:

  • Aviation programs want to use wireless broadband to send and receive important information during search and rescue missions, surveillance, and intelligence operations.

  • UAS programs identified broadband connectivity as a way to address security concerns related to command and control of the aircraft itself.

  • Maritime programs expressed the need to monitor the location of their maritime assets and to share real-time information between maritime and ground responders.

The case study elaborates on these needs as well as other ways broadband may improve aviation and maritime operations and safety. 

Looking ahead

This study is just the first step in understanding the complexities of maritime and aviation environments and the needs of responders. We are currently conducting the next round of research to understand how broadband propagates in the air and on water to inform potential enhancements to public safety’s FirstNet experience while operating in these two environments.

We remain committed to working with public safety to advance public safety communications through studies like this. We will use this research and the findings from this study to work with AT&T to ensure the FirstNet network evolves for public safety.

Interested in aviation and maritime public safety communications? Contact your FirstNet Authority Public Safety Advisor to learn more or share your feedback on how broadband impacts your response in these environments.   


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