Since it debuted last year, the first dedicated communications network for emergency responders has signed on 9,000 public safety agencies, and plans to grow in areas including portable services and improved connections.
The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) has published a formal document describing how it plans to expand the nation’s evolving next-gen emergency communications network over the coming five years.
The FirstNet Authority Roadmap establishes technology priorities across a range of areas including capacity and coverage, voice communications, data security and situational awareness. Its authors say the document is intended to further the ongoing conversation between FirstNet and the emergency response community.
“We wanted to find a way to have dialog about critical aspects of the network, the particular platforms that public safety uses, so that the end users can understand the direction that we want to go,” said Jeremy Zollo, executive director of FirstNet’s Enterprise Strategy Division.
Built in partnership with AT&T, FirstNet went live a year ago. AT&T announced this month that nearly 9,000 public safety agencies have subscribed to FirstNet, accounting for over 750,000 connections.
“The vision for FirstNet is really coming to fruition,” said Stacy Schwartz, AT&T’s vice president of public safety and FirstNet. “We all need to be connected, from the police department to the fire department to the person in the ER. They all need to be on the network for the vision to be realized, and these numbers tell us that we are getting there.”
Still, the network remains very much a work in progress, and Zollo described the new roadmap as a means to help ensure public safety agencies can actively participate in its future development. “The roadmap puts them in the driver’s seat,” he said. “These are the things that they have told us are important to them, and they are going to help us now to take on these challenges.”
The roadmap highlights six high-priority “domains,” areas that appear ripe for potential investment in the near term:
The roadmap points the direction without setting explicit goals or timelines for expansion. While these are the issues FirstNet intends to address, there is no rigid formula for what the next advances may look like, nor are there any promises about measurables such as network capacity. “As we put together programs around these priorities, then we will start to create more tangible measures,” Zollo said.
One key area that will likely receive attention in the near term is the expanded use of “deployables,” portable cells that can be used to deliver FirstNet capacity on an as-needed basis. FirstNet already has 75 of these in use and is likely to expand that footprint.
“Deployables have had a high impact when used, and enhancing the fleet with more and a wider variety of solutions will improve accessibility and effectiveness for public safety operations,” the roadmap states.
Zollo points to this as a prime example of the strong working relationship between FirstNet and public safety. Originally viewed by some as a nice extra among FirstNet’s offerings, portable capacity has emerged as a favorite feature among early users.
“They are using these assets and finding things we had not foreseen,” Zollo said. “They are using [the portables] for coverage in places where they don’t have it. They are using them for capacity at large events. It’s given them faster throughput and greatly expanded coverage. We want to capitalize on that and continue to mature that program.”
User feedback helped to bring deployables to the top of the to-do list. Zollo said FirstNet is looking to the roadmap as a way to inspire further, deeper conversations. “We’ve given them a path forward for how we will improve the network and grow it, and we expect to work hand in hand on implementing that plan,” he said.
The plan also represents a sort of milestone, in that it offers a clear indication of how FirstNet intends to go forward now that it is a revenue-generating entity.
“We now have dollars that are flowing back into us through the contract with AT&T, and so for the first time we will be making decisions around advancing the network beyond the initial buildout,” Zollo said. “This is when public safety starts to see their dollars translate into tangible results in the network.”
Meanwhile, AT&T this month released metrics detailing how far FirstNet adoption has come to date.
The company noted that the FirstNet Band 14 spectrum has been deployed in nearly 650 markets nationwide, and that public safety officials have leveraged the network for communications during 175 planned and emergency events this year, including wildfires, floods, and major concerts and festivals.
AT&T’s Schwartz said that in the immediate future, the network will likely come to embrace organizations beyond the frontline police and fire departments that have been FirstNet’s main point of emphasis thus far.
“We initially spent our time on police, fire, emergency medical, and there is a high adoption rate there already,” she said. “Now we are seeing transport companies, medical centers, individual ER technicians signing on. We are seeing airlines and tree removal services, all the different groups within the emergency operations plan.”