Feds Rethink Public Safety Network While Locals Stew

With passage of new public safety broadband legislation earlier this year, the federal government is trying to put the brakes on these projects to ensure they fit in with the emerging national network – and in some cases that’s spurring frustration.

by / August 29, 2012
Photo courtesy of Mary Pellegrino/FEMA Photo courtesy of Mary Pellegrino/FEMA

Projects to build advanced public safety networks in more than 20 state and local jurisdictions are on hold indefinitely while the federal government sorts out the details for creating a nationwide interoperable communications network for first-responders.

The projects were approved by the FCC in 2010, allowing a number of jurisdictions to build 4G wireless networks in 700 MHz spectrum set aside for public safety. With passage of new public safety broadband legislation earlier this year, the federal government is trying to put the brakes on these projects to ensure they fit in with the emerging national network – and in some cases that’s spurring frustration in jurisdictions that have spent several years and a significant amount of local funds on networks nearing completion.

Two jurisdictions -- Harris County Texas, and Charlotte, N.C. -- secured interim permission from the FCC to launch the first sites of what is to become the National Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN). About two weeks ago, Harris County went live with the first few sites. But then the rollout hit some snags. The initial authority granted by the FCC to stand up network sites was to expire only a few weeks later on Sept. 2. In addition, the FirstNet Authority Board – created by Congress to govern the new national network -- had yet to be named.

The new network legislation – contained in the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, which was signed into law in February – also complicates grant funding for early network builders. In a May letter to jurisdictions using Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grants to fund their projects, the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) said BTOP funding for 700MHz projects had been partially suspended, adding that the legislation “radically altered the assumptions on which we awarded your grant.”

Harris County, Texas

According to Robert Cavazos, Harris County ITC Mobility director of broadband services, the county currently has six sites that are operational and another eight sites in various stages of deployment. "Because we were using FEMA monies to purchase and install the additional eight sites, we were obliged to halt completion of the sites as a result of the FEMA/DHS moratorium on expending FEMA funds on broadband (LTE) equipment,” said Cavazos in a statement emailed to Government Technology. “We are currently pursuing an extension to our grant and permission to expend funds on the completion of those eight sites."

"The current authorization issued by the commission expires and cancels existing leases that are in effect with the PSST [Public Safety Spectrum Trust] effective Sept. 2," said Todd Early, who has responsibility for public safety communications interoperability for the Texas Department of Public Safety. He said Harris County, in partnership with the state of Texas, has applied for a special temporary authority [STA] that would extend the county’s ability to operate the network sites for another 180 days. “We’ve been working closely with the FCC and their staff to hopefully receive approval on this STA before the Sept. 2 deadline," Early said.

The nationwide wireless network was a hot topic at last week's APCO conference during which Acting U.S. Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank announced the names of the 12 FirstNet Board members.

In spite of the temporary nature of the authorization, Early sees the Harris County launch as a significant milestone for public safety communications, saying it’s the first public safety broadband network in the nation to go live using a new network ID created specifically for the new nationwide network.

Charlotte, N.C.

Somewhat less upbeat about the rollout is Charlotte, N.C., business support services manager Charles Robinson, who says the city's sites are not live and will not be live by the Sept. 2 authority expiration date. In fact, said Robinson, the city has not submitted an STA application, and is trying to figure out what to do. Part of the uncertainty is the fact that an STA is valid for only 180 days while contracts with vendors and suppliers are multi-year agreements.

And Charlotte has an additional hurdle to clear. "Our situation is a lot different than Harris County," said Robinson, "because our work was being funded by the BTOP grants. We were contacted by NTIA the first part of April and asked to slow our project down, because they didn't want us spending any dollars on LTE equipment or related services." The city -- which was trying to hit a network go-live date of June 25, got a suspension letter on May 11. "We have a lot of stuff in warehouses," said Robinson. "Our solution was a hosted solution, so I have a really nice ... gateway sitting over in my data center, it lights up with really cool lights, but it doesn't do anything."

Robinson says he's "a little bit frustrated" with the delay, and the delay itself presents another problem. "We're still evaluating submitting an STA, and the reason is that -- as with any project -- delays cost money. NTIA has explained to us that we will have to fund that delay out of either city funds or grant funds, so now we are trying to see if there's a business case to go forward that supports us doing that. It's really hard to build an effective business model on 180 days of operation -- for us to go forward and spend a lot of money and commit to multi-year contracts for service and tower space and all these other things on a 180-day operating notice, which is all you get for an STA. And we may or may not get renewed. So it becomes 'how much do you risk on the renewal process?' NTIA has said several times they don't know what the position of the FirstNet Board will be ... as it relates to these projects. So it's real tough right now, to develop an effective business model and that's what we're struggling with. And I don't want to submit for an STA, and then not deliver a network."

Why The Delay?

The NTIA’s May letter to BTOP grant recipients said funding for early 700MHz projects was being reassessed in light of the new national network plan. The letter, from the NTIA's Lawrence E. Strickling, said Congress created FirstNet to help "avoid the balkanization that has plagued earlier efforts at interoperable public safety communications." FirstNet will consult with states, localities, territories and tribes and translate those entities' needs into a single network architecture, then develop requests for proposals. In the meantime, Strickling said that going forward with purchasing and installing LTE equipment before FirstNet has organized itself to design and build the network puts millions of taxpayer dollars at risk. Finally, said Strickling, "We cannot predict the FirstNet Board of Directors' upcoming decisions with regard to network architecture, security and other considerations."

Robinson says he understands that the NTIA doesn't want to waste taxpayer money that may be stranded. "But I also know that Charlotte ... took great pains to ensure that we had a network design that would easily fold into a national or state network. We thought we had really developed a winning network model that would serve FirstNet very well as a testbed ... And in the order that the FCC issued, they said they believe that we are interoperable, and will be in the future."

Robinson said that the new FirstNet Board members had a lot of issues to study to get up to speed, and there was no indication as to the position BTOP awardees had on the Board's list of short-term priorities.

Robinson, however, is very appreciative of the city's network vendors, that include Alcatel-Lucent, CrownCastle and RCC Consulting. "They have hung with us, and worked with us through this suspension ... and have just really been great.

"I'm looking for some kind of assurance, he said, "and the FCC didn't really give us that in the order, and so we're trying to figure out what the path forward is."

In addition to Charlotte and Harris County, several other jurisdictions with FCC authority to build are well along in their deployments, including  Adams County, Colo., (which surrounds the Denver International Airport) and the State of Mississippi. Both are using BTOP funds, and, like Charlotte, are on “slow down” until the FirstNet Board can make a decision to move forward.

“I understand the frustration of these early builders,” said Bill Schrier, former CTO for the City of Seattle. For the past two years Schrier chaired the group of 20 jurisdictions who worked together to resolve many of the technical and regulatory issues for the early builders.  He recently gave up that post when he retired from Seattle and joined e.Republic as the deputy director of the Center for Digital Government.

“We have 20 cities, regions and states who have spent a lot of time, effort and money planning to build 4th Generation wireless networks to serve their first and second responders. In most cases they’ve spent $100,000 or more in local funds. And now they find themselves either stopped or limited in how they can deploy.”

But Schrier agrees with Robinson that nobody wants to see federal grant funds stranded. “Building these networks is complicated, with equipment and software from many different vendors. We don’t want to build five networks today, each of which is somewhat different and perhaps incompatible with the other.”

Schrier is hopeful that the FirstNet Board will rapidly organize itself, see the value in the work of the early builders, and allow it to go forward. “We need to demonstrate quick results and success to our local elected officials and public safety officers who have waited so long for these networks.”

Wayne Hanson

Wayne E. Hanson served as a writer and editor with e.Republic from 1989 to 2013, having worked for several business units including Government Technology magazine, the Center for Digital Government, Governing, and Digital Communities. Hanson was a juror from 1999 to 2004 with the Stockholm Challenge and Global Junior Challenge competitions in information technology and education.

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