(TNS) -- As the ash fell from the remains of the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001, thousands of Americans were desperately trying to call friends and loved ones on mobile phones. But often, they could not, as the sheer volume of calls overwhelmed the existing networks.
For the public at large, it was frustrating and fear-inducing. For the hundreds of firefighters, police officers and emergency responders attempting to coordinate rescues of the injured, it was potentially life-ending.
Sixteen years later, countless disasters have again tested our nation's systems and found them lacking. Most recently, Hurricanes Harvey and Irma wiped out cell service for millions and created obstacles for those charged with public safety.
But a new Boulder lab, unveiled to the public on Thursday, hopes to end that quagmire once and for all.
The facility on the eastern edge of the city is the technical headquarters of FirstNet, a national broadband network solely for first responders. Created from the 9/11 Commission Report, FirstNet has a dedicated broadband spectrum, the "highway from your cellphone to the tower" on which data travels, said Walt Rivenbark, assistant vice president of marketing and market development for AT&T's public safety division.
AT&T in March was awarded the 25-year contract to be the commercial partner on FirstNet, a public-private partnership. FirstNet will leverage AT&T's existing system, and the company expects to pour in up to $40 billion of its own money in addition to FirstNet's allotted $6.5 billion from the taxpayers, enough to cover the first five years of operation.
After that, the program will be self-sustaining, said Mark Golaszewski, FirstNet's director of applications. Revenue will come from subscribing public safety departments, who will pay to utilize the network's service, at or below rates offered to AT&T's commercial users.
Because the internet can't be counted on in such situations, most departments rely on decades-old radio technology, limiting the amount of information that can be relayed during a major weather or terrorist event. Having a dedicated spectrum keeps other traffic off the highway, Rivenbark explained, and it allows the adoption of mobile technologies and applications.
On FirstNet, the nation's estimated 3.5 million first responders will have only to compete with one another for speed. AT&T also plans to offer the FirstNet spectrum to "extended primary users" — utility, transportation and health workers who are "second to the scene."
The deal is a good one for AT&T, who can use the dedicated spectrum for its commercial customers when first responders aren't using it.
Only municipalities in "opted in" states will be able to buy FirstNet service. Twenty states and territories have signed on to FirstNet so far; Colorado is not yet among them. States are not mandated to utilize FirstNet, but they will have to develop their own solution if they don't use FirstNet.
In March, Colorado issued its own request for proposals (RFP) to run a state-level version of FirstNet. Two respondents submitted bids in May, said Brian Shepherd, chief operating officer of the state's broadband office.
"We did kind of a two-stage RFP process," Shepherd said. "We had two respondents (to whom) we issued further guidance, and final bids were due (Thursday)."
The two proposals will be considered as options along with an opt-in to FirstNet, Shepherd said. A decision is expected in early October.
Those states and departments that have gone the FirstNet route will be able to supercede commercial users on AT&T networks by the end of the year, and will be able to switch to the dedicated spectrum sometime in the next five years as it is built out.
The role of the Boulder lab is to test all the applications and devices that will be offered on FirstNet to "ensure they're going to work when we need them," said Jeff Bratcher, FirstNet's chief technology officer.
About $3 million has been spent so far setting up the Boulder facility, which employs some 50 people, Bratcher said.
A handful of companies are offering apps and devices to aid in more challenging environments. Deployable and portable satellites from SquireTech, of Texas, and inmarsat government, of Virginia, will allow firefighters or cops to "take the cell network with them," Rivenbark said.
Drones from AT&T can be sent to provide extra bandwidth at large events like concerts or football games, where networks are likely to be overwhelmed.
Connectivity "is like oxygen," Rivenbark said: Necessary for survival. "The more capacity we make available to people," the safer they'll be.
©2017 the Daily Camera (Boulder, Colo.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.