The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) recently took another step forward toward the creation of the nation’s dedicated broadband first responder network.
FirstNet has delivered official notice of State Plans to governors, opening a 90-day window for states to decide whether to opt in to the joint FirstNet/AT&T plan for rolling out a public safety network. States may also decline and take on the responsibility for building their own networks, which would have to be interoperable with FirstNet.
“We’ve hit a major decision point,” said FirstNet Director of State Plans Brian Hobson.
At least 25 states had already opted in to FirstNet even before the release of the state-specific plans, which address a range of detailed questions surrounding the eventual network buildout. That number has increased since late September to 27 states and territories.
Plans include a history section summing up four years’ worth of conversations between the state and FirstNet, as well as a decision-making guide for governors. Each plan lays out technical details surrounding the network architecture, as well as coverage details.
“That’s the heart of the wireless system, the coverage maps, which are very similar to what you would see with a commercial carrier,” Hobson said. The maps give not just geographic details of the network but also timelines for projected deployment. “They can see what will be operating in their state and when that is going to happen.”
The state plans don’t say how much FirstNet service will cost, but rather lay out a structure of major contracts through which states will be able to buy services. When it comes to specific rates, “they will continue to work those out, looking at competition and pre-existing agreements. There are a multitude of factors that might be taken into account,” Hobson said.
While the state plans are largely similar, each has been customized to take in factors such as geography, which can impact the timeline and equipment needs for a wireless rollout, as well as population. In rural states, for example, FirstNet has adjusted plans to include cooperative agreements with partners who could help extend the network.
Experts in public safety communications say the release of the state plans marks yet another milestone for FirstNet, adding new momentum to the building nationwide interest among first responder agencies.
“It's another great step forward for FirstNet,” said Ray Lehr, former assistant chief of the Baltimore City Fire Department and Maryland’s former designated FirstNet single point of contact (SPOC).
He noted in particular FirstNet’s apparent willingness to take under advisement recommendations made to earlier drafts of the state plans. “I think it shows FirstNet and their teammate AT&T’s willingness to work with the states to try and fine tune the plans to meet their specific needs,” he said. Virginia serves as an example of this. “Even though Virginia was the first state to opt in, AT&T is still discussing ways to enhance local coverage and provide support for public safety needs.”
FirstNet officials say they have consulted extensively with the states over the last four years, conversations that drove the initial RFP, the selection of AT&T and the present state plans, Hobson said. He noted that those conversations will be ongoing as the governors make their decisions.
“There has been a tremendous amount of engagement leading up to this and that engagement continues. Our goal is to make sure the governors have all the information they need to make an informed decision,” he said.
In addition to the recent release of the state plans, FirstNet has taken another step toward realizing its vision with the launch of the first developer program geared toward America’s first responders.
“This program will tap in to the expertise and creativity of the developer community to drive innovation for public safety,” FirstNet CEO Mike Poth said in press release. “It will also connect first responders with developers to create apps that will help them stay safe and save lives.”
FirstNet planners say the program will encourage developers to help build an app store of tools aimed at public safety communications. They describe it as an open-standards ecosystem for cost-effective, interoperable solutions.
The program offers developers a specialized portal stocked with tools to help them build, test, deploy and maintain public safety applications. Apps may ultimately address such needs as situational awareness, field reporting, records management and forensic intelligence.
The program gives developers the chance to have their apps evaluated and recognized as either “certified” or “reviewed” by FirstNet, based on the application’s uptime availability, resiliency and scalability for simultaneous users.
“The FirstNet app store will combine the convenience of a public app store with the security of a private app store,” Poth said in the release. “We look forward to working with companies, individual developers and first responders to stock the store’s virtual shelves with fully vetted and highly secure apps to help public safety personnel achieve their mission.”
A seasoned journalist with 20+ years' experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. His work has appeared in dozens of general and niche publications nationwide.