The government organization charged with building the nation’s first high-speed data network for first responders says it will make its first contract award soon. It will likely happen in November, although no firm date is set.

With an award on the $7 billion First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) program potentially just weeks away, first responders say that despite years of planning, they still have more questions than answers when it comes to the future LTE communications backbone.

“How will this thing be deployed? What are the subscriber fees going to be? What will be the impact will be on the local budget? How will the network be controlled?” said Yucel Ors, federal advocacy program director for public safety at the National League of Cities. “There are a lot of unknowns still.”

Officially no one even knows who is in the running. FirstNet won’t release the names of bidders, under the rules of the federal procurement process. Unofficially, three groups say they have put their hat in the ring: AT&T, Rivada Mercury and pdvWireless.

This alone is noteworthy. When the FCC auctioned public safety spectrum in 2008 it failed to receive a single viable proposal. Many wondered whether the 2016 procurement effort would draw credible attention from potential network builders. It has.

FirstNet won’t comment on the pending award. Officials won’t say whether they are considering a multi-vendor play or if they plan to give the project to a single team. What they will talk about is the process that has been going on during the evaluation period — a process of relationship-building with the states and emergency response agencies who will eventually implement FirstNet.

“The consultation and outreach this year has been really intense," said Teri Takai, a member of the FirstNet Board of Directors and senior adviser at the Center for Digital Government (a division of Government Technology's parent company, e.Republic). "Initially it was very much focused on state and tribal agencies, but this year there has also been more activity to involve local first responders."

Conversations have been especially active in Las Vegas, San Diego, Boston, Kansas City, Mo., and Los Angeles, as well as in other cities where FirstNet officials have solicited direction on the eventual form and function of the network. “We have been diligent about collecting input from first responders,” Takai added. “The genesis of FirstNet was from the public safety community. They were the ones who came together as the catalyst for the original legislation.”

Members of the public safety community say they remain eager to see FirstNet implemented. Despite what feels to some like a prolonged process, they say the need for such a network is greater than ever.

“Every incident that public safety responds to can be shown to have benefited from a reliable, public safety network like FirstNet,” said Ray Lehr, former assistant chief of the Baltimore City Fire Department and Maryland’s former designated FirstNet single point of contact (SPOC), who noted that the recent flooding in the southeast brought many first responders from as far away as New York to assist in rescue and recovery. "Communications were a challenge because commercial networks are not reliable. To communicate, first responders needed to bring their own network equipment and determine the best way to connect with local agencies.”

Born in the wake of 9/11, when interoperability problems hampered first responders, FirstNet was conceived to address just these kinds of issues. Early efforts have shown that the vision of first responders who can readily share data even during times of high-volume communication can be achieved.

FirstNet designated several “early builder” cities to demonstrate the potential for high-speed, interoperable data networks.

The Los Angeles Regional Interoperable Communications System (LA-RICS), for example, pulled off a successful demonstration at the 2016 Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, Calif. During the course of an event that drew hundreds of thousands of spectators, LA-RICS forged a communications network across more than 120 law enforcement, security, crowd control and emergency response personnel.

New Jersey’s emergency broadband authority, called JerseyNet, scored a similar win, delivering critical communications capabilities during a Papal visit to Philadelphia in September 2015. That network delivered secure communications and live streaming security video via two system-on-wheels (SOW) trailers positioned in the upper levels of parking garages. JerseyNet also helped the Atlantic City Police Department provide video, voice and radio communications for two major concerts — Maroon 5 and Rascal Flatts — with a combined audience of nearly 100,000 fans.

Such undertakings suggest the principles behind FirstNet are sound, and yet there has been skepticism raised, most notably in The Atlantic, which published a highly critical article that referred to the proposed FirstNet architecture as “obsolete.”

Experts take issue with that characterization. “I expect the network to provide first responders with better coverage, capacity, priority and preemption all at a better cost,” said Robert LeGrande, founder of The Digital Decision consulting firm, referring to the mechanism whereby it can be assured that emergency traffics takes precedence on the new network. It’s a major concern among the emergency community and, until the award is made, no one knows for sure how FirstNet plans to get there.

But LeGrand consulted early on in the legislation that created FirstNet, and in his mind, "the probability of achieving these goals has increased substantially,” he said.

LeGrand points to the State and Local Implementation Grant Program (SLIGP) as solid evidence that FirstNet remains on track. Through that program, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has doled out $116.5 million in grants to 54 U.S. states and territories to help identify needs, gaps and priorities for public safety wireless broadband. 

Minnesota, for instance, received $2.3 million in SLIGP funding to update its Statewide Communication Interoperability Plan. Nebraska got $1.5 million toward that same task and Louisiana drew $1.9 million. Such funding has helped ensure FirstNet will respond to the practical needs of the emergency community, LeGrande said.

As may be expected, the bidders likewise decry The Atlantic article. Declan Ganley calls it “ridiculous.” He’s CEO of Rivada Networks and co-CEO of the Rivada Mercury coalition, which includes Ericsson, Nokia and Intel Security, along with IT contractor Harris Corp., backhaul provider Fujitsu Network Communications and telecom construction firm Black & Veatch.

“The suggestion that public safety has better alternatives with existing solutions is patent nonsense," he said. "In terms of coverage and capability and speed, the reliability and the resilience of the network, all of those things are addressed very well in that [FirstNet bid solicitation]."

The devil is in the details, of course, and so far those details have not been forthcoming. While public safety won’t get the answers it wants until the award is announced, FirstNet officials do want to be clear that at least they have heard the questions.

“They are concerned about what the cost is going to be to them. They want to know we are making sure there is consistent coverage around the country," Takai said. "Those things have been there from the very beginning."

In these weeks leading up to the big announcement, she urges public safety officials, and all concerned parties, to keep the channels of communication open. Once the award is made, states will either have to produce plans for FirstNet implementation, or opt out of the program and plan their own networks. Either way, state officials will face a massive undertaking, and success will require broad buy-in.

“It is important that all the decision-makers be engaged, and that includes legislators and the governors’ offices. On the local level that includes commissioners and councilors," said Takai. "Everyone needs to be part of the education process."