What's Needed to Make FirstNet a Success

Wireless Wonk

What's Needed to Make FirstNet a Success

By Barlow Keener, Attorney  |  September 03, 2013

The 2012, U.S. Congress created the First Responder Network Authority, or FirstNet. It is the second time at the plate to try to create a dedicated nationwide, interoperable, highly reliable LTE (News - Alert) network for the nation’s 2.5 million public safety workers. The purpose is to replace the rugged and always working, two-way radio system in use since the 1930s. 

Progress has been made, with a few bumps in the road, and much complexity, politics and risk are ahead.   Congress allocated $7 billion of TV Incentive Auction funds to FirstNet. The auction is on track to be completed next year. However, it is the most complex auction attempted. 

FirstNet does not have its own website but uses NTIA’s web site. Nevertheless, there is a lot of action. The FirstNet Board has been appointed and has held six board meetings. In April 2013, it appointed Verizon Wireless (News - Alert) executive Bill D'Agostino as chairman. A 400-page startup plan was produced by consultants. FirstNet held six regional consultations; administrative funding for full-time employees has been received; and the board authorized spending $20 million in 2013. Short-term public safety spectrum leases with BTOP grant state winner were recently entered into. And ten RFI’s have been issued primarily for equipment and vendor information. 

To succeed, the FirstNet Board must build a nationwide cellular network that equals or exceeds the working two-way radio system. 

By 2011, the mobile environment had changed and the typical public safety workers were toting smartphones, allowing easy texting, voice, and data communications with co-workers. They also carried the two-way 470MHz radios, computers with data cards using a cellular carrier, and a smart-phone like the iPhone (News - Alert). The two-way radios were very reliable and, unlike the cell phone, would work from a building basement. They were rugged. They worked when the cellular network went down. And local public safety controlled the location of the antennas, power, and base station radios. 

But the old radios were much more costly (around $3,000 per radio) than smartphones. One agency could not talk to the other easily.  And no text, data, or video could be received or transmitted on the devices. However, local public safety agencies will not give up their working, reliable, basic voice radio networks for a new federal LTE interoperable network that partially works.   We all know that cell phone coverage even after 20 years of constructing cell sites is not reliable. Calls drop.  Service is often spotty in some areas. Thus, FirstNet has a challenge.

After 9/11, where public safety helpers in the towers were hampered with interoperability issues, the Chief of the NYPD and other local public safety officers, sought help from the federal government to build a nationwide, redundant cellular network designed for public safety. One of the other issues with 9/11 was that cell phone service was lost due to huge demand on the network by the public during the crisis and loss of critical infrastructure.  

In response, The Congress authorized the auction of the D-Block consisting of 20MHz of 700MHz spectrum. A private company would build the network and public safety and commercial users would pay for the network through subscriptions. But the D-Block auction failed when bidders did not meet the $1.3 billion reserve price (Qualcomm (News - Alert) bid $472). The concept was scrapped by the FCC, and public safety’s needs were put on hold. 

Public safety officials, in particular local municipality town and police chiefs, then began pressing Congress for new alternative to the D-Block.  After Congressional wrangling and amending, on Feb. 22, 2012, Congress passed the Middle Class Tax Relief Act and used it to create FirstNet, an independent authority within the NTIA.  The mission of FirstNet is to design, build, and operate the nationwide interoperable network. 

However, industry consensus seems to be that $7 billion is not enough to build a nationwide LTE network for public safety.  However, if – and this is a big if – FirstNet works closely with local municipal and state police departments, existing tower municipal-owned or leases structures in each town now used for T-Band and other radios can be used for FirstNet.  Also, existing town fiber and conduit could be used by FirstNet. 

Working with local agencies could be a solution but it will have to begin in the planning stages this year.  One project that could ensure success is doing a ground-up inventory of all 60,000 state and local agency assets.  State and municipal public safety agencies could be relied upon, with professional assistance, to locate and place local LTE radios on municipal towers and roofs, which would increase the probability of constructing the network on budget, on time. 

Barlow Keener (News - Alert) is the principal with Keener Law Group (www.keenerlawgroup.com) out of Boston.

Edited by Alisen Downey