Our nation is a step closer to establishing a nationwide public safety broadband network (NPSBN).

On Dec. 9, the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) Board approved the request for proposals (RFP) to build, operate and deploy the NPSBN and directed management to take all necessary actions to release the RFP in early January. 

“This is a landmark day for FirstNet and public safety,” said FirstNet Chair Sue Swenson. “By approving the RFP, the Board has taken a major step forward to deliver a mission-critical network that first responders deserve – one that is dedicated to public safety, is secure, sustainable, and will continuously utilize state of the art technology across America.”

FirstNet Vice Chair Jeff Johnson said, “We engaged in an open and transparent process to develop this RFP from the start and met our goal of completing it by the end of the year. I commend the Board and FirstNet staff for their dedication. I also recognize the valuable contributions of our stakeholders who provided us with feedback every step of the way. FirstNet is looking forward to receiving competitive offerings from industry to build the network.”

Back in October, FirstNet approved the key RFP elements. The FirstNet RFP is objectives-based and incorporates public safety’s needs for a nationwide broadband network. Central to this approach, FirstNet issued multiple Requests for Information, Public Notices and Special Notices for public comment. FirstNet also collected vital stakeholder feedback on the RFP documents through consultation and outreach with public safety partners nationwide.

Background on FirstNet

FirstNet will be a wireless broadband LTE network that operates on 700 MHz spectrum and is dedicated to emergency responders nationwide.

Back in 2013, I conducted this interview on FirstNet with Teri Takai. Ms. Takai was the Department of Defense (DoD) chief information officer at the time, and she remains a current FirstNet board member.

For readers not familiar with FirstNet, the following definition may help from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) website

“The Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 created the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) as an independent authority within NTIA. The Act directs FirstNet to establish a single nationwide, interoperable public safety broadband network. The FirstNet Board is responsible for making strategic decisions regarding FirstNet’s operations."

You can learn more about the history of the FirstNet at this press room link.

FirstNet Perspective from the Private Sector

So how important is FirstNet to our cyber and communication ecosystem? David O’Berry, who is a former state government cyberleader in South Carolina, addressed this question in a powerful way at a recent Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) Emerging Technology Forum in Atlanta. O’Berry is a longtime friend of many state and local government CISOs, and someone I trust on this issue.

Stephanie Toone described his remarks this way in her recent blog post:

“It’s a real challenge we have to attack, not just in the law-enforcement community, but everywhere,” said David O’Berry, worldwide technical strategist, Office of the CTO, Intel Security Group. “The law-enforcement community has kind of done things maybe in the middle of the pack or afterward, but, with FirstNet, this is the chance to set the tone for the entire world.”

During the “FirstNet: Securing the Network at Public Safety Grade” session, O’Berry discussed the need for public-safety data security to be handled at the most basic level—from body-worn cameras to LTE devices—because the “attack surface” continues to expand as the number of Internet-connected devices increases.

As devices have evolved, the number of known pieces of malware has grown from 1 million in 2007 to 150 million this year, O’Berry said. As an example of the ubiquity of data security breaches, O’Berry cited a recent ransomware incident that paralyzed the computer system at the sheriff’s office in Lincoln County, Maine, after an accidental virus was downloaded on the system. The sheriff’s office had to pay a $300 ransom to de-freeze its system.

For these reasons and many others, the development of a secure FirstNet is vital to the future success of the criminal justice community.

DHS Names 10 Radio Interoperability Advisory Panel Members

In a separate but related matter, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) named 10 people to a new Interoperability Advisory Panel. In a Dec. 9, 2015, press release, DHS announced the membership of its Project 25 Compliance Assessment Program (P25 CAP) Advisory Panel, to help establish standards for interoperability among digital two-way land mobile radio communications products.

Project 25 aims to solve the issues that first responders face as manufacturers often use different technical approaches that make their radios unique, and, thus, potentially incompatible with other systems. P25 CAP is a formal, independent process, created by DHS and operated in collaboration with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, for ensuring that communications equipment that is advertised as P25 is actually compliant. Through a well-defined testing process with publicly published results, the P25 CAP provides public safety agencies with evidence that the equipment is tested against and complies with standards for performance, conformance and interoperability.

The P25 CAP Advisory Panel will provide S&T’s Office for Interoperability and Compatibility (OIC) with federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial perspectives on portable, handheld, and vehicle-mounted radios and infrastructure equipment. Through the P25 CAP AP, S&T OIC can support the collective interest of organizations that procure P25-compliant equipment. ...”

The inaugural Advisory Panel membership includes the following people as it commences its activities across the fall/winter of 2015:

Dan Robinson, state of Michigan Arnold Hooper, state of Tennessee Morton Leifer, state of New York Marty McCoy, state of Wyoming Roger Strope, state of Missouri Chris Kindelspire, state of Illinois Mike Kionka, state of Colorado Gerald Reardon, commonwealth of Massachusetts Joseph Heaps, National Institute of Justice John Evanoff, Federal Communications Commission For more information, visit http://www.firstresponder.gov//P25CAP.

Final Thoughts on FirstNet

These recent FirstNet developments, along with the appointment of this DHS Interoperability Advisory Board, offer encouraging signs that real progress is finally coming toward establishing a nationwide public safety broadband network.

Yes – progress on FirstNet has been slow. Too slow for most state and local first responders across the nation.

And yet, with the recent developments, terrorist attacks in San Bernardino and ongoing criminal investigations across the county, these FirstNet efforts have never been more important to government technology infrastructure.