Blank named four members with a public safety background: Deputy Chief Chuck Dowd, New York Police Department; Paul Fitzgerald, sheriff of Story County, Iowa; Jeff Johnson, a former Oregon fire chief and current CEO of the Western Fire Chiefs Association; and Kevin McGinnis, chief of North East Mobile Health Services. Two members have state or local government backgrounds — Wellington Webb is the former mayor of Denver, and Teri Takai is the former CIO of Michigan and California and now CIO of the U.S. Defense Department. Sam Ginn, a telecommunications executive and pioneer in the cellular telephone industry, will chair the board.

One of the most important things the FirstNet board must do is name a public safety advisory committee, which can be unlimited in size and membership. “There is a right direction and a wrong direction they can take there,” said McGinnis, who was Maine’s emergency medical services director for 10 years. “It must consist of people with the knowledge and tool sets to advise them on all of the applications and devices, on how to manage bandwidth usage and prioritize it,” he said, “as well as people who have experience building networks.”

The board must also ensure that it has a large enough staff, McGinnis said. “One concern I have is whether NTIA has sufficient resources. This project could be strangled if it doesn’t have sufficient staff, and there is as yet no formula for that.”

How Will Network Build-Out Be Funded?

One key issue is how network construction will be funded. The legislation created a Network Construction Trust fund of $7 billion. But experts estimate that building a nationwide fourth-generation wireless network could cost anywhere from $15 billion to $40 billion.

Operating the system will cost billions more each year. But going back to Congress for additional funding probably isn’t  an option, said Bill Schrier, the longtime chief technology officer of Seattle, who is now the deputy director of the Center for Digital Government, an advisory and research organization operated by e.Republic, Emergency Management’s parent company. “It was a contentious process to get the $7 billion,” he said. Part of the spectrum will be auctioned and that money will go to deficit reduction, which made it more palatable to legislators. “But they are not going to be able to go back to the well,” Schrier said. “To fund build-out, FirstNet is going to have to take other, more innovative approaches to both public-public and public-private partnerships.”

The act allows for other users on the network: utilities, transportation and potentially commercial users. As an example of partnerships that could save money, Schrier said FirstNet could use Seattle’s cell towers or those of rural cooperative electric utilities. Another possibility is that networks in rural areas could serve both commercial customers and public safety. Commercial users would pay for the time they use. Even in urban areas, they could be used in that dual fashion, although commercial users probably wouldn’t want to be subordinate to public safety data traffic.

Charles Werner, chief of the Charlottesville (Va.) Fire Department, hopes FirstNet builds on progress he has seen on the local and regional levels. “We went from building individual systems for fire, police and emergency medical services to having a regional shared network for city, county and the University of Virginia that is all interoperable,” he said. “Now we are taking that a step further, with a chance to have a network that is even more interoperable and robust. It requires a wider array of mission-critical partners: public health, utilities, railroads, airports and public transportation.”

For that to happen, Werner said the network must be highly reliable and hardened, yet still be price competitive. The equipment has to meet users’ needs and not be proprietary. As an example, Schrier said Motorola made a popular public safety radio with proprietary features, including a red emergency button that sent an alert at the highest priority even when the user couldn’t talk. “It’s unlikely that FirstNet will allow that,” Schrier said.

David Raths  |  contributing writer