FirstNet crawled toward its goal of developing a nationwide public safety broadband network at the start of the year, spending its first few months naming board members and conducting business operations. But by spring, the entity ramped up with a flurry of activity, setting the stage for what looks like a whirlwind 2014.

Starting in May, FirstNet conducted six regional consultation workshops where representatives met with state and local government agencies about their existing public safety communication projects. In addition, FirstNet has issued RFIs for broadband technology, created a regional operational model aligned with the 10 Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) regions and approved a $194 million budget for next year.

According to TJ Kennedy, deputy general manager of FirstNet, the moves were made to better support outreach activities in 2014, including state consultation meetings. One of the goals is to “staff up” the 10 operational regions so FirstNet and the states can share information and create a plan on how to roll out a broadband emergency network that states are connected to.

Kennedy explained that FirstNet is using FEMA’s regional template because each of those regions share similar issues with weather and topography, making the model a natural fit for FirstNet.

By organizing regionally, FirstNet will have staff and personnel with public safety and technology backgrounds that live and work in those areas, providing local expertise when challenges and concerns arise. So as FirstNet begins work with Colorado or Utah, they will have people in place that understand how public safety operates in that area.

The meetings will be used to discuss issues such as coverage, user counts and how each region’s geography will impact state efforts. For example, a technology and deployment strategy that might work fine in Illinois likely won’t meet the needs of Alaska or rural Arizona. So time will be spent with each region to establish specific needs and methods of connecting the network.

“We’re listening and working to move closer toward creating that state plan that will need to be completed together with FirstNet and the states,” Kennedy said. “That’s really what a lot of 2014 is going to be focused on.”

“That’s really the goal of the state consultations — to talk about the art of the possible, but also what needs to be done,” he added.

Financing Innovation

More than $116 million in grants were issued by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) this year to help states with FirstNet planning. The grants were awarded through the NTIA’s State and Local Implementation Grant Program (SLIGP). The grant program was authorized through the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012.

The first SLIGP grants were awarded in July. The most recent were issued late last month to Alabama, American Samoa, Illinois, Maine, Michigan, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and Wisconsin. A full list of the grants is available on the NTIA website.

Prior to FirstNet being established however, a number of local governments were working on their own high-speed public safety networks. Charlotte, N.C., for example, used a Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grant issued by the NTIA to develop its own 4G LTE mode. The city was on the verge of deploying it, but that funding was suspended once FirstNet was authorized.

In order to lift the suspension, Charlotte was required to reach a spectrum management lease agreement with FirstNet. That didn’t happen, as both FirstNet and Charlotte mutually agreed this summer that they wouldn’t pursue it.

Chuck Robinson, director of shared services for Charlotte, explained that the city’s business model for its LTE public safety network was no longer viable, because it had been 18 months since the funding had been suspended. So the city ended that component of its grant and is terminating existing contracts it had in place.

Now Charlotte is working to develop a strategy to use the balance of its BTOP grant funds to advance its public safety communications and do what it can to prepare for the arrival of FirstNet in the area.

Robinson admitted that he believed Charlotte’s LTE network was a “great model” for a national public safety broadband network and was disappointed that the city won’t be able to deploy it. But he’s encouraged by the quick progress FirstNet has made this year.

“If they did not have board members that have contributed at levels I find phenomenal, it would never have gotten off the ground,” Robinson said.

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1998, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.