The BTOP grantees were notified by the NTIA this spring that their projects were being partially suspended to ensure that LTE investments are compatible with whatever national network plan is established by FirstNet. The new board will have to decide whether to allow these projects to have access to spectrum and continue or to wait until the network architecture is in place. Opinion is divided on what they should do.

Werner credited the NTIA for making “one of the boldest and most difficult decisions I have ever seen a federal agency make.” Before the legislation passed, he thought any kind of movement on pilot projects was good. But now he would like FirstNet to be as unencumbered as possible to unilaterally set the stage. “They can set the requirements and then hold people’s feet to the fire if they don’t follow them.”

But for Charlotte, the suspension is a bitter pill to swallow. “We had crews ready to go to work,” Robinson said. “It was an opportunity to do something that would test deployment strategies ahead of when FirstNet will be able to do anything.” The most optimistic estimates are that FirstNet will begin construction in four years after planning grants, design, specs, contracts, vendors and state opt-in decisions, he said. Meanwhile, the device manufacturers will be in hold mode. “I understand the logic of stranded investment and why NTIA took the action they did,” Robinson said, “but they could put us at the back end of this process and by the time they got back to us in seven years, it would be time to refresh the technology anyway. We are hoping FirstNet will say we can use the spectrum. We have been on hold for almost four months.”

What Are Some Applications?

So what are some likely applications of a broadband network dedicated to public safety data and video? For emergency management officials, an example might be a major wildfire. Live video feeds from multiple cameras allow the incident commander to actually see events rather than hear them described on the phone. “You have the governor’s office hounding the office of emergency communications for status reports,” said McGinnis. “You could walk up to a data wall with big TV screens and grab a video feed and share that. It takes that 10-minute conversation down to one minute.”

The Charlotte project promises to offer public safety officials mobile video and field use of fingerprint and facial recognition applications. Another goal is to improve the ability of networks supporting area first responders in communicating with emergency response agencies.

McGinnis said paramedics in Washington County, Maine, with a sick patient can find themselves an hour and a half from a hospital on a day the helicopter is not flying due to bad weather. “You want to bring a virtual doctor into the back of that ambulance,” he said.

Schrier believes that the network will spawn a generation of innovations, including perhaps apps stores for public safety. “People didn’t envision what would happen with the iPhone and iPad, and now there are millions of apps,” he said. “The same thing will happen with public safety, I think. Firefighters will code apps. Some of those apps will take off like Angry Birds.”

But before any of that happens, FirstNet has to get the public safety community involved in making the network a reality. “There are tons of unanswered questions,” McGinnis said. “Will there be a national operations center? Where will it be backed up? Developing the RFP will tell the states everything about the direction.”

This is an important time for emergency management and public safety officials.

“We have a unique opportunity to get this right,” Werner added. “FirstNet needs to reach out to all the individual user organizations in public safety and to the states to ask, ‘What does this need to look like?’”

This article was originally published by Emergency Management.

David Raths  |  contributing writer