Indications are that 2018 will be a formative year for both FirstNet, authorized by Congress in 2012, and Verizon, which announced plans to build a private network for public safety communications in August.

Though neither network will be fully built out next year, both are expected to become operational, and representatives on both sides said the next 13 months will be critical.

WHAT’S NEXT FOR FIRSTNET

Twenty-nine states have decided to opt in to FirstNet ahead of the Dec. 28 deadline, which essentially implements the FirstNet/AT&T build-out plans submitted to each state. FirstNet aims to complete its core network in March 2018 and will ultimately be available across 56 states and territories, with a complete build-out of network infrastructure around 2020.

FirstNet currently offers priority communication to users on its existing network, and will provide the ability to pre-empt non-emergency users by the end of 2017. FirstNet SIM cards, which connect users’ cellphones to the network, are now available, and the FirstNet applications store opened on Oct. 1.

But the core network, according to Dave Buchanan, FirstNet director of consultation, will provide perhaps the most important offering to public safety: a dedicated channel for public safety with end-to-end encryption and data transmission across the network.

Buchanan linked interoperability and the ability to offer data connectivity as key FirstNet attributes that enable a greater degree of data-based communication — allowing first responders to share, for example, calls for service records that might previously have been siloed by different communications and legacy storage systems.

“This is police car to fire truck to sheriff’s deputy to ambulance. Being able to share data from individual devices. That data, now we have the ability through FirstNet to get it into the hands of the people doing these jobs in real time. And get the data from those people in the field back to people who need it most,” Buchanan said.

A FirstNet source close to ongoing planning and preparations declined to speak on the record but characterized 2018 as something of a “starting point year.”

Developing applications, the source said, will be key to FirstNet’s future, noting that “the future use of FirstNet is heavily dependent on good applications being available in the FirstNet app store.”

VERIZON ARRIVES ON-SCENE

Verizon, a dominant force in the public safety sector that controls 75 percent of that market according to some estimates, announced its intention on Wednesday, Aug. 16, to build a secure, segregated, private network for public safety users powered by its existing 4G LTE capability.

States wouldn’t have to opt out of FirstNet to use Verizon, according to Michael Maiorana, senior vice president of Public Sector for Verizon Enterprise Solutions, but can “come and go as they please.” Nor would Verizon's network require financial commitments from states to support deployment or access to any federal funding provided to FirstNet.

Like FirstNet, Verizon already offers priority communications to first responders. Maiorana said the company is in the “throes of engineering” the separate public safety network and plans to launch it in 2018.

He said Verizon is also developing “a host of other solutions,” including devices capable of operating within the nationwide first responder 700 Megahertz spectrum.

Unlike AT&T, the winning bidder to become the FirstNet provider, Maiorana said Verizon decided not to bid because it believed it already had the “spectrum depth” and “portfolio” it needed to provide quality public safety coverage.

“It will enable us to deliver these specific applications like pre-emption, like mission-critical, push-to-talk, other applications that we will be able to segment from our commercial traffic and commercial users for this customer alone,” Maiorana said.

COMPETITION, CO-EXISTENCE NOT UNEXPECTED

Not surprisingly for two large communications networks powered by nationwide providers, Verizon and FirstNet are prepared to co-exist, representatives say.

Both have essentially “the same set of tools that you would use to deliver the network” Maiorana said, adding that Verizon sees “a meaningful opportunity” to work with FirstNet and AT&T to accelerate “their mission to serve public safety.”

But in a July filing, Verizon asked the Federal Communications Commission to inform states that FirstNet wasn’t their only option for a dedicated public safety wireless network.

On Tuesday, Oct. 31, the company offered its perspective on “Oversight of FirstNet: States Perspective” in a letter to the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Communications and Technology and again urged a “state-centric” instead of a “one-size-fits-all approach.”

In order for FirstNet’s opt-out option “to be meaningful,” Verizon wrote, FirstNet “must allow states to pick their own commercial partner, or partners, and to establish their own public-private partnership” similar to FirstNet. States, Verizon said, should not be required to use FirstNet’s core network.

“We don’t want to see a situation where onerous conditions are put forth on a state to make it very difficult for them to achieve choice and open competition. We want an even playing field is, I guess, what we can say,” Maiorana said, adding that Verizon believes “we can cohabitate together and offer choice.”

Buchanan said the opt-in, opt-out deadline “doesn’t mandate” states become FirstNet customers, but merely make a decision “about who’s going to operate, maintain, upgrade the network in that state.”

“There is no obligation to the state to become a customer if they opt in and there’s no obligation to a public safety entity to become a FirstNet customer,” Buchanan said, characterizing FirstNet as “merely another option."