With FirstNet’s designated network in all 50 states and dozens of apps available in its catalog, the niche market for first responders originally envisioned by the 9/11 Commission has come to fruition.
In the wake of terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, one key takeaway identified by the 9/11 Commission was that the U.S. needed a designated, nationwide public-safety broadband network. Armed with that, public safety leaders from law enforcement, fire, emergency medical and communications agencies banded together to lobby Congress. They were successful.
Legislation created the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) in 2012, and seven years later its fiber network is in all 50 states plus Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, with plans to reach America’s three major Pacific territories later this year. With the network has also come the FirstNet App Catalog, a growing resource exclusively for network subscribers to access the latest, strictly vetted public-safety tools.
Mark Golaszewski, the executive director of technology and innovation for FirstNet based in Boulder, Colo., recently brought Government Technology up to speed on the network, its catalog and what they’re doing for the public-safety community.
He said FirstNet has two classes of users: primary public-safety users, such as law enforcement, fire services, emergency medical services and communications centers; and extended-primary users, who assist public safety in unplanned incidents or large planned events, such as when a utility company is involved with repairing a severed gas line.
“FirstNet is positively impacting public safety across the nation today,” Golaszewski said. “As an example, last summer’s hurricane season was very active, and the responsiveness and resilience of the FirstNet network came into play in hurricane responses … because their radio networks had been taken out by the storm.”
Golaszewski said FirstNet’s mandate from the get-go was to build, operate, maintain and evolve a nationwide public safety network, using $7 billion in startup funds from wireless spectrum auctions and 20 mHz of dedicated wireless spectrum allotted by Congress. After five years of planning, the network launched in March 2017 through a nationwide award and partnered with AT&T, sharing its infrastructure at first before launching a dedicated core network in March 2018.
One of the objectives of FirstNet’s request for proposal, based on input from public safety officials, was to develop an “applications ecosystem” that would yield new, high-value-added products in the field. Golaszewski said one of the components of that ecosystem was always envisioned to be an app catalog, which launched in late 2017 alongside a developer program to help interested companies, policymakers and individuals create new tools.
As described on FirstNet’s website, the catalog includes tools for communication, device security, private connection and cloud functionality. The site also describes a stringent, two-tiered approval process for apps that requires them to be either certified or reviewed. To have an app certified, developers must qualify the app’s service-level availability, provide a source code scan, allow further testing by a security team, explain permissions and data handling and provide documented performance tests. The review process is similar, minus the source code scan.
“Those aren’t just vetted to the same level most commercial apps are. … The provision was always that it would be more secure, more reliable, more resilient, more scalable, to meet the rigorous requirements and needs of public safety,” Golaszewski explained. “That process and the actual evaluation, and security validation, etc., is done by AT&T. So they manage the process, but before an application is approved and added to the catalog, there’s a final review that includes members of both AT&T as well as First Responder Network Authority.”
Golaszewski wouldn’t say exactly how many apps are in the catalog now, but it’s in the dozens, and he offered a few examples:
He said sometimes government agencies acquire these apps via an RFP, sometimes by trial period, and sometimes because first responders try them on their own. But Golaszewski pointed out that plenty more are still using the same voice radios they’ve had for decades. From its inception, one of the stipulations of FirstNet was that it develop a business model to be self-sustaining for the duration of its 25-year contract, and Golaszewski was confident the program has plenty more work to do.
“We have a 10-year license on our spectrum, so we have to reapply and have our license renewed every 10 years, and we do that in conjunction with the FCC,” Golaszewski said. “Looking ahead (at the 25-year-contract), what we would anticipate is that we’d either develop a plan to recompete the network, or look to reassess where we’re at with AT&T at that time, and develop a fresh contract with them.”