The summer of 2017 may well be remembered as the time when the nation’s broadband first responder network stopped being just an idea and started to become a reality.
Congress created the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) in 2012, allocating $7 billion toward an effort that would leverage the 700 MHz spectrum in support of a nationwide public safety network. Years of planning ensued.
In recent weeks, those plans have begun to bear fruit. In the wake of an award naming AT&T as builder of the network, states have begun signing on. Seven states so far have said they will opt into the network.
The seven are Arkansas, Iowa, Kentucky, Virginia, Wyoming, New Jersey and West Virginia. FirstNet CEO Mike Poth called it “a momentous week” when the first five stepped up in mid-July. Gov. Chris Christie brought New Jersey on board shortly thereafter, followed by West Virginia.
These initial entrants into the yet-to-be-built network represent “a tremendous example of how the federal government, state governments and the private sector can work together for the true benefit of the public safety community and the citizens they bravely serve,” Poth said at the time.
As a former undersecretary of homeland security, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson endorsed the underlying need for a first responder network in a press release announcing his state’s decision. He noted that FirstNet “has received wide support among our community of first responders because it will enable us to respond more quickly during crises when seconds can mean the difference between life and death.”
Local emergency leaders have voiced support for their states’ decision to opt in. “I am extremely pleased that Virginia is choosing to opt into the network,” said Fairfax County Fire Chief Richard Bowers in a press release. “Access to the network will provide us with additional tools to help ensure we can do our job when the time comes.”
Gov. Matt Mead echoed this view. “FirstNet will be an asset for emergency personnel across Wyoming. This is a tool that allows for better communication and faster response,” he said.
AT&T officials said the early adopters will lead a transformation in public safety communications. The need to keep first responders safe and provide them with the tools that will help them protect people and communities is something we can all get behind,” said Chris Sambar, senior vice president of AT&T – FirstNet.
Iowa’s Gov. Kim Reynolds highlighted an added benefit, beyond the boost to first responder communications. By expanding upon AT&T’s existing footprint, FirstNet “will also help expand coverage for rural Iowans, providing access to a reliable, high-speed wireless connection in areas with little or no connectivity today,” Reynolds said.
States that opt in do so at no risk, since FirstNet and AT&T bear responsibility for deploying, operating, maintaining and improving the network. Iowa’s announcement in fact spells out all the things the state will not be responsible for, including “capital expenditures, operating costs and other costs like staffing, training, integration, environmental compliance and program management.”
Still, the decision to opt in clearly is not one states are taking lightly. Arkansas officials and public safety personnel, for instance, met with FirstNet more than 30 times to address a range of communication issues.
States and territories have until mid-December to make their final decisions regarding FirstNet participation. They can also “opt out” and choose to build and operate their own piece of the network, without the benefit of federal funding.