The logic behind creating a nationwide broadband network for first responders is simple. Deploy a high-speed wireless communications system so that federal, state and local emergency response personnel can share data, do their jobs more efficiently and save more lives in the process.

But establishing robust wireless connectivity across every square meter of the United States’ diverse terrain is a lofty goal for even the most seasoned team of network engineers. Mountains and other natural interference can wreak havoc on even the strongest commercial cellular signals. And that doesn’t even address the potential for political bureaucracy and red tape.

Despite the challenges, the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) — an independent authority within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) that was established last year to help make the national broadband network a reality  — is making progress.

Seven regional wireless connectivity projects will serve as preliminary test sites. The hope is that once online, the sites will provide lessons learned and deployment data for future construction of a national model.

The sites, located in Adams County, Colo.; Charlotte, N.C.; the state of Mississippi; Los Angeles; the San Francisco Bay Area; northern New Jersey; and Albuquerque and Santa Fe, N.M., will negotiate and sign separate lease agreements with FirstNet to use the 700 MHz spectrum for broadband communications. The NTIA will give final approval.

The seven sites were chosen because they are all recipients of 2010 Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grants. The regions were in the midst of engineering and constructing their own individual long-term evolution (LTE) wireless public safety networks when the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 established FirstNet.

As a result, funding was partially suspended by the NTIA, leaving the localities in a holding pattern. The regions began negotiating new spectrum lease agreements with the FirstNet board in February. Those talks are progressing well, according to the board. The FirstNet legislation includes $7 billion in federal funding to build the new network.

Jeff Johnson, a FirstNet board member and CEO of the Western Fire Chiefs Association, said the authority has spent the last several months building itself from the ground up. Johnson called FirstNet a “fledgling start-up entity” with all of the tasks associated with getting started in business — creating a system to manage its financials, hiring employees and other basic responsibilities.

“I liken it to being an incident commander, and you got to the fire before the fire apparatus,” Johnson said. “Everyone has an expectation that you are going to get out and do something … but the reality is, if you stay there and focus on your command priorities and plan the attack, it’s going to be more effective. And that’s what we’re doing.”

One of the first steps was to appoint 15 members to the board of directors, which will ultimately make the decisions about how operations will run.

So far, 12 of the 15 members are in place, including Chairman Sam Ginn, a telecommunications executive and pioneer in the cellular telephone industry. Acting U.S. Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank appointed the group, which comprises telecommunications and policy leaders from both the public and private sectors.

 In its first two meetings last year, FirstNet adopted bylaws and a number of resolutions to enable the board to begin its work. One of those key moves was establishing a public safety advisory committee (PSAC). Through a deal with the Department of Homeland Security, FirstNet will share DHS’ SAFECOM program, which works to improve interoperable communications for the Office of Emergency Communications.

Harlin McEwen, chairman of the Communications and Technology Committee for the International Association of Chiefs of Police, will serve as chair.

Last fall, Reynolds and other members of the FirstNet board met individually with BTOP awardees to evaluate their progress and talk about how FirstNet might be able to leverage their work. Those meetings uncovered a few challenges.

For instance, there’s already a mismatch in resiliency standards for communication towers. North Carolina’s standard includes the ability to withstand seismic and ice impacts and winds up to 150 mph. But most of the towers in use by commercial wireless companies today are in the 75-120 mph wind load range, Reynolds reported to the FirstNet board last December.

FirstNet Board of Directors

FirstNet Board of Directors Permanent board members include the secretary of Homeland Security, the U.S. attorney general and the director of the Office of Management and Budget. The other 11 members include Johnson; Chuck Dowd, deputy chief of the New York City Police Department; Paul Fitzgerald, sheriff of Story County, Iowa; and Kevin McGinnis, chief of North East Mobile Health Services. Members with state or local government background include Wellington Webb, the former mayor of Denver; and Teri Takai, CIO of the U.S. Defense Department and the former CIO of Michigan and California.

Rounding out the board are Tim Bryan, CEO of the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative; F. Craig Farrill, a wireless telecommunications executive and acting FirstNet general manager; William Keever, a retired telecommunications executive; Ed Reynolds, a retired telecommunications executive; and Susan Swenson, a telecommunications and technology executive.

Retrofitting those commercial towers could be costly, and government funding can’t be used unless the government has a security interest in the tower, he reported.

Local officials say there are other practical hurdles for FirstNet to overcome as well. Chief among those concerns is establishing a business model for FirstNet, according to Charles “Chuck” Robinson, director of shared services for Charlotte, N.C., pictured above (photo by Bob Leverone).

It’s still unknown whether the national broadband network will be operated by one specific vendor, or if FirstNet will want states or regional entities to go through an RFP process. With one private carrier, FirstNet could face stiff competition from public safety agency customers because agencies aren’t required to subscribe to the national network. If the cost for jumping to the service is too high, local entities might not have the financial ability or motivation to move.

FirstNet’s goal is to produce a product that first responders need and want at a price that is at or below what agencies currently pay.

“That’s a challenge that we openly and willingly embrace,” Johnson said. “I have every confidence we’ll do just that. The bottom line is the police chief, sheriff, IT directors and CIOs have to look at this and say, ‘It’s good value and I have to have it.’ Otherwise we will have failed our principal mission.”

 Unfortunate timing with equipment replacement cycles may also prove challenging. Many agencies upgraded to 3G mobile access routers and other equipment when that standard became mature, Robinson said. That equipment is nearing the end of its life cycle and public safety agencies in Charlotte and elsewhere are ready to upgrade to 4G equipment. But mobile routers currently on the market do not include Band 14 — the frequency band the nationwide network eventually will use.

If Band 14 capability isn’t available when agencies upgrade to 4G equipment, it’ll be six to eight years before another refresh, greatly delaying their ability to use the new national network. Robinson warned the FirstNet board last year that the longer it takes for Band 14 equipment to reach the market, the more potential customers the network will lose.

“You need to have those out there so that when I go buy it, I’m buying a mobile access router that has Band 14 in it, so when the national network comes on the scene, all I have to do is switch [bands],” Robinson said.

Preserving local management of public safety communications is another big issue for regional emergency personnel.

Former Utah CIO Steve Fletcher leads the NTIA office that distributes FirstNet planning grants. Photo by David Kidd

Local agencies should be able to control some aspects of the network, said Barry Fraser, interim general manager of the Bay Area Regional Interoperable Communications System Authority (BayRICS), a regional joint powers authority that oversees BayWEB, the San Francisco Bay Area’s public safety broadband network project.

“We can’t rely on some nationwide management control structure to do this for us when we need to make real-time decisions to respond to a disaster,” Fraser said. “So, part of it, I think, is going to be FirstNet providing assurances to the local jurisdictions that they are going to be able to have control over the network operation.”

Fraser added that local agencies probably wouldn’t be comfortable with the use of commercial cell sites for public safety communications because they often don’t have backup power and reinforced structure to ensure the sites can withstand earthquakes or other natural disasters.

Before FirstNet was created, BTOP recipients were on a three-year clock to develop local public safety broadband networks using the grant funds. Robinson hosted bi-weekly meetings to discuss and help further plans.

Even though the funding was suspended, the meetings resulted in progress toward designing a base interoperability standard, so all the groups could eventually connect their systems nationally.

Charlotte partnered with Alcatel-Lucent, a global telecommunications equipment company, and drew plans for a 39-site network design. The city expects to have that network running in 18 months if given the green light to continue, Reynolds told the FirstNet board in December.

Like Charlotte, the San Francisco Bay Area was pretty far along with its regional public safety network plans when the federal government asked it to stop spending BTOP grant funds. BayRICS had worked out a master agreement with Motorola to establish a public-private partnership known as BayWEB, and was set to begin construction.

But once the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act passed, the federal government wanted BayRICS to delay the project until FirstNet decided on how it would to proceed.

“The timing couldn’t have been worse for us,” Fraser said. “We had undertaken some really incredible efforts to get our early concerns and problems worked out and we were ready to proceed, and then we were told essentially to stop.”

FirstNet took steps in February to firm up its operational structure. The board gave Farrill the ability to hire term and permanent employees, with the exception of officer-level appointees, which still need to be approved by the FirstNet board of directors. Plans to hire a permanent general manager are also in place.

 FirstNet also is stepping up outreach efforts to governors and leadership groups and establishing a database of key national and regional law enforcement, fire and emergency personnel to market the national public safety broadband network to potential users.

The network also will contain an app catalog where responders can download a number of trusted and pre-screened mobile applications. Johnson said a hackathon is being planned for the second quarter of 2013 to inspire innovation in the developer community.

The NTIA will begin awarding planning grants to state and local jurisdictions in July, said NTIA Associate Administrator Steve Fletcher, who heads the administration’s Office of Public Safety Communications. The grant program is designed to help governments work with FirstNet as they collect data on assets and equipment that could be used as part of the new network.

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.