FirstNet: The long-awaited public safety broadband network is underway

By Charles Werner

From the very beginning, the concept of a dedicated broadband spectrum for public safety encountered significant obstacles. Announced by telecom pioneer Morgan O’Brien at the 2006 International Wireless Communications Expo, the idea of a nationwide public safety broadband network faced reluctance from members of Congress and opposition from various commercial wireless carriers and other companies.

Immediately following O’Brien’s announcement, public safety leaders, including me, began to explore the idea of a nationwide public safety broadband network. Finally in 2007, after many meetings involving most of the national public safety organizations, other national leadership organizations, members of Congress and federal agencies, the tide had turned in favor of a building a nationwide public safety broadband network through a public-private partnership. To that end, the nonprofit Public Safety Spectrum Trust was established in June 2007 in hopes of receiving the 700 MHz spectrum known as the “D-Block.”

On July 31, 2007, the FCC issued a second report and order creating a public-private partnership between the PSST and the commercial licensee winning the bid for the 700 MHz D-Block. The PSST and commercial wireless licensee, issued 12 MHz of 700 MHz band spectrum in November 2007, were to work together to build a nationwide public safety wireless broadband network.

Things did not go smoothly. Following a failed 2008 bid for the 700 MHz spectrum, Congress began discussion of the D-Block. Between 2008 and 2012, discussion about a nationwide public safety broadband network resembled a roller coaster ride with numerous ups and downs.

Finally in 2012, Congress authorized the First Responder Network Authority, known as FirstNet, ultimately creating a public-private partnership between FirstNet and AT&T (awarded March 2017) to build this public safety broadband network.

Road ahead for FirstNet

FirstNet went from an idea to reality thanks to an unwavering and historical unity of public safety leadership. The March 2017 announcement that a contract between FirstNet and AT&T was signed – meaning first responders will have access to services that use the full AT&T network – resulted in excitement throughout the public safety community.

After a period of euphoria, it is clear that more hard work lies ahead. After a long and arduous journey to get to this point, the next phases of build-out, implementation and adoption of FirstNet will be equally challenging.

Next challenges for FirstNet

Over the past two years, states and territories across the nation have been holding FirstNet outreach and consultation meetings in preparation for the FirstNet state plans. Drafts are anticipated to be released this summer.

States will review the plans, consult with public safety stakeholders and provide feedback for the final state plans to be delivered in the fall. Each state will decide whether to accept the state plan or to opt out and build their portion of the FirstNet network on their own.

Opting out appears to be a Herculean effort, as the state would have to oversee building to all of the FirstNet standards and manage all subscriber transactions, customer care and wireless device programming/distribution. Ultimately, each state will be required to oversee every aspect of building the network and accept full financial liability with no financial gain (by law). All monies received for the program are required to be invested into the FirstNet network.

On the other hand, opting in via state plan assigns the total responsibility of implementation to FirstNet with no state liability. It is important to note that there is no obligation to the state or localities as far as purchasing services using the FirstNet network.

Following the state consultation meetings and state points of contact (SPOC) briefings, FirstNet and AT&T, as partner in this public/private partnership, understand the three requirements that have been repeated by all of the public safety stakeholders: coverage, capacity and cost.

  • The first, coverage involves the necessary coverage to satisfactorily meet stakeholder needs.
  • Second and equally important is sufficient capacity to provide public safety access for normal and emergency operations when needed the most and when there is the highest demand on the system. This will require both priority and preemption.
  • The cost of wireless broadband service and the cost of devices is a budgetary factor. Most public safety stakeholders cannot afford more than what they are currently paying. Keep in mind that nearly 70 percent of the fire service consists of volunteers. Tribal, local, state and federal agencies are also financially strapped and will be unlikely to pay any more for service and/or devices.

Adoption of FirstNet

Adoption will be the most important aspect of FirstNet’s success as it encompasses coverage, capacity, cost and more. Public safety has fought long, hard and in unity for FirstNet and the promise of a nationwide mission critical broadband network. However, FirstNet and AT&T will have to meet the needs of emergency responders. FirstNet’s leadership and staff have demonstrated their understanding of the mission and their dedication to making this vision into a reality, selecting a partner that will provide the best value to public safety. FirstNet and AT&T are positioned to deliver the coverage, value and experience first responders expect at a highly competitive and compelling price point, and AT&T is required to meet specific minimum performance measures for adoption or face penalties.

Innovation to advance technology for public safety

FirstNet has pushed hard in setting the highest standards regarding the nationwide network, smart devices apps and customer service. The FirstNet Innovation and Test Lab, known as FirstNet Lab, will provide the space and equipment for innovation, creation and testing of the network, smart devices and apps. FirstNet and AT&T will use the lab to advance the LTE network and technology for public safety.

Initially, there were concerns on how long it would take to build out a Band 14 public safety broadband network. Fortunately, there is some exciting news to share in that AT&T will enable its entire nationwide LTE network to provide quality of service, priority and preemption for public safety. AT&T will be offering the FirstNet service with quality of service and priority access once state governors decide to opt into the public safety network.

Preemption services are expected to be made available in opt-in states as soon as the end of this year. This exponentially increases the coverage area for public safety, with priority and preemption above what may have originally been thought possible. This, combined with the FirstNet rural coverage requirements, will greatly enhance coverage areas.

External challenges to FirstNet

The unknown challenges ahead are perhaps the most concerning. After FirstNet and AT&T reveal the state plans for coverage, capacity and cost, questions remain about what other commercial wireless carriers will do. It is expected that other carriers will remain competitive, and to what degree will determine the impact on FirstNet.

Public safety commitment

Public safety organizations across the nation are joining together to develop a strategy for the successful deployment of FirstNet, the nationwide public safety broadband network, with palpable and growing level of enthusiasm. Read more about the future of FirstNet in this article from Mike Poth, FirstNet CEO.

About the author
Chief Charles L. Werner (Charlottesville Fire Chief Ret. – Emeritus) serves as the acting Deputy State Coordinator and Senior Advisor with the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. He presently advises on Rail Responder Apps, Unmanned Aircraft Systems, FirstNet, NG911, Situational Awareness, GIS and interoperability. He has served 42 years in the fire service, retiring as Charlottesville's fire chief in 2015. Werner has over 100 nationally published articles and continues as a contributing editor to Firehouse Magazine, Firehouse.com and is a regular contributor to Urgent Communications, sUAS News and FireRescue1. Werner also serves on the Board of the National Alliance for Public Safety GIS, the International Association of Fire Chiefs Technology Council, Advisory Council of the National Information Sharing Consortium and the Virginia Statewide Interoperability Executive Committee. Werner is also the lead organizer and chair for the National Council on Public Safety UAS and is a certified Part 107 Remote Pilot with the Albemarle County Sheriff's Search and Rescue Team. Werner also serves on the NPSTC UAS Working Group and the Metro Washington COG UAS Working Group.

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