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FirstNet: Answers to Key Questions

The national public safety broadband network board must hit the ground running to deal with funding, governance, partnerships and broadband projects already in progress.

One of the 9/11 Commission’s key recommendations in 2004 was that Congress should provide for the expedited and increased assignment of radio spectrum for public safety purposes.

It took eight years to get the job done, but when President Barack Obama signed the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 into law on Feb. 22, it marked the culmination of years of effort for those who had been fighting for a national public safety network. The legislation combines the D Block of spectrum with the 10 MHz already allocated to public safety to create the First Responder Network Authority, or FirstNet, as an independent authority within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). FirstNet is charged with establishing a nationwide interoperable wireless broadband network for first responders and emergency management officials. The new network is not initially intended to replace existing public safety and first responder land mobile radio voice communication systems.

Public safety advocates have had little time to celebrate their legislative achievement because the establishment of FirstNet raises as many questions as it answers. First, an FCC Interoperability Board convened and within two months came up with 46 requirements and 56 suggestions FirstNet must consider to ensure the network is interoperable. When the FirstNet board was named in August, its members faced a series of questions involving funding, governance, architecture, partnerships and broadband projects already under way.

“The legislation sets guidance for the [FirstNet] board, but it has to establish policy,” said Harlin McEwen, chairman of the Public Safety Spectrum Trust, which holds public safety’s 10 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum. That spectrum will be paired with the D Block to provide the foundation for the FirstNet network. And before they get to the meaty policy issues, board members will have to establish ground rules. “Once the board is named, its members have to organize procedures, bylaws and a charter,” McEwen said. “Then they have to hire competent staff.”

Legislation Breakdown

-- reallocates the 10 MHz D Block to public safety, and with the Public Safety Spectrum Trust’s 10 MHz, provides a total of 20 MHz of broadband public safety spectrum;

-- establishes a Network Construction Trust fund of $7 billion;

-- establishes a temporary FCC Interoperability Board and a FirstNet Board;

-- establishes a standing Public Safety Advisory Board to the FirstNet board;

-- establishes NTIA state planning grants totaling $135 million;
-- requires public safety licensees to vacate T-Band channels in nine to 11 years; and

-- provides $300 million to the National Institute of Standards and Technology for research.

Source: Motorola Solutions Inc.

Public safety officials are well aware that they still face the problems identified in the 9/11 Commission Report, especially a continued reliance on commercial providers and an inability to prioritize public safety use over consumer and commercial use. This was brought home to Charles Robinson, key business executive for Charlotte, N.C.’s Business Support Services in 2010 when the city hosted a World Cup soccer game. “We had 70,000 people in Panther Stadium, and when something exciting happened in the game, everyone started using their cellphones to send photos, text, tweet or call,” he said. The cellphone tower overloaded, and the police command center that was set up outside the stadium was kicked off the network. “These types of things occur every day,” Robinson said. “Not a month goes by that our police chief doesn’t come to me with a problem trying to push data out to patrol cars.”

Today the only way public safety has access to broadband devices is through commercial services from companies such as Verizon or Sprint, McEwen said. “We are already realizing the benefits of transmitting building plans to firefighters or to police in a hostage situation,” he said, “but the systems are not reliable or secure enough, and they don’t cover all the areas we want them to. So we want the same kind of systems, only more reliable, with public safety organizations prioritizing access.”

Here are some key questions about FirstNet:

Who’s on the Team?

FirstNet’s board has 15 members with three of the seats filled by permanent members: the U.S. attorney general, director of the Office of Management and Budget and DHS secretary. Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank selected the 12 other members in August. At least three board members must have served as public safety professionals, and at least three members must represent the collective interests of states, localities, tribes and territories.

Blank named four members with a public safety background: Deputy Chief Chuck Dowd, New York Police Department; Paul Fitzgerald, sheriff of Story County, Iowa; Jeff Johnson, a former Oregon fire chief and current CEO of the Western Fire Chiefs Association; and Kevin McGinnis, chief of North East Mobile Health Services. Two members have state or local government backgrounds — Wellington Webb is the former mayor of Denver, and Teri Takai is the former CIO of Michigan and California and now CIO of the U.S. Defense Department. Sam Ginn, a telecommunications executive and pioneer in the cellular telephone industry, will chair the board.

One of the most important things the FirstNet board must do is name a public safety advisory committee, which can be unlimited in size and membership. “There is a right direction and a wrong direction they can take there,” said McGinnis, who was Maine’s emergency medical services director for 10 years. “It must consist of people with the knowledge and tool sets to advise them on all of the applications and devices, on how to manage bandwidth usage and prioritize it,” he said, “as well as people who have experience building networks.”

The board must also ensure that it has a large enough staff, McGinnis said. “One concern I have is whether NTIA has sufficient resources. This project could be strangled if it doesn’t have sufficient staff, and there is as yet no formula for that.”

How Will Network Build-Out Be Funded?

One key issue is how network construction will be funded. The legislation created a Network Construction Trust fund of $7 billion. But experts estimate that building a nationwide fourth-generation wireless network could cost anywhere from $15 billion to $40 billion.

Operating the system will cost billions more each year. But going back to Congress for additional funding probably isn’t  an option, said Bill Schrier, the longtime chief technology officer of Seattle, who is now the deputy director of the Center for Digital Government, an advisory and research organization operated by e.Republic, Emergency Management’s parent company. “It was a contentious process to get the $7 billion,” he said. Part of the spectrum will be auctioned and that money will go to deficit reduction, which made it more palatable to legislators. “But they are not going to be able to go back to the well,” Schrier said. “To fund build-out, FirstNet is going to have to take other, more innovative approaches to both public-public and public-private partnerships.”

The act allows for other users on the network: utilities, transportation and potentially commercial users. As an example of partnerships that could save money, Schrier said FirstNet could use Seattle’s cell towers or those of rural cooperative electric utilities. Another possibility is that networks in rural areas could serve both commercial customers and public safety. Commercial users would pay for the time they use. Even in urban areas, they could be used in that dual fashion, although commercial users probably wouldn’t want to be subordinate to public safety data traffic.

Charles Werner, chief of the Charlottesville (Va.) Fire Department, hopes FirstNet builds on progress he has seen on the local and regional levels. “We went from building individual systems for fire, police and emergency medical services to having a regional shared network for city, county and the University of Virginia that is all interoperable,” he said. “Now we are taking that a step further, with a chance to have a network that is even more interoperable and robust. It requires a wider array of mission-critical partners: public health, utilities, railroads, airports and public transportation.”

For that to happen, Werner said the network must be highly reliable and hardened, yet still be price competitive. The equipment has to meet users’ needs and not be proprietary. As an example, Schrier said Motorola made a popular public safety radio with proprietary features, including a red emergency button that sent an alert at the highest priority even when the user couldn’t talk. “It’s unlikely that FirstNet will allow that,” Schrier said.

“We have to learn from our LMR [land mobile radio] experience and not repeat it,” added Werner. “If I go to another locality in another jurisdiction, the device will work just like I am moving from one Wi-Fi hot spot to another.”

Werner, who is on the DHS’ SAFECOM executive committee, believes FirstNet also will have to partner closely with commercial wireless vendors. “They have the expertise that public safety doesn’t have, and we don’t want to build something completely new,” he said. “We have to leverage the value of what is already built and use each other’s equipment, including federal assets.” One possibility for the FirstNet RFP is regional partnerships, he said. “We could see Maryland, D.C., and Virginia form a consortium to build it out in their region.”

Could States Opt Out?

Another potential complication for the FirstNet board is that state governments will have the opportunity to opt out of the network and build their own statewide networks.

Those opt-out decisions will likely not occur until the RFP is developed, which could occur as early as next year. If state officials were to deem that the design is deficient or doesn’t give adequate control to the local level, they might choose to opt out.

“During a disaster involving bridges here in Seattle, we wouldn’t want control of resources at a national operations center,” Schrier said. “But if the architecture does operationally allow for that type of local control, it’s hard to see why states would opt out.”

Most states wouldn’t have enough money to go their own way, said McGinnis, a program adviser for the National Association of State EMS Officials. “Some states are being encouraged to consider opting out by vendor entities because usually something like this is done with a single RFP for infrastructure so their idea is divide and conquer.”

In fact, some vendors are telling state and local governments that running their own public safety network could provide additional revenue by providing services to commercial entities or utilities. “I think they are providing bogus advice,” Schrier said. “The legislation states that any income derived from the network must go back into its operation or build-out.”

In addition, as Schrier pointed out, even though $135 million is being made available for state planning grants, there’s nothing in the law that says state or local governments have to use the network. “The Seattle Police Department could decide it’s too expensive and stick with its existing Sprint network instead,” he said. State and local emergency responders must have a good reason to use it. One good reason is the dedicated spectrum, but it still requires a compelling price. “The best thing would be to use their existing assets and they will be more likely to participate,” Schrier said. “They are more likely to be involved if they have skin in the game.”

Will LTE Pilots be Allowed to Continue?

Charlotte was one of seven regions that won Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grants to work on long-term evolution (LTE) broadband public safety projects. “We were excited to be getting it in place before the Democratic National Convention here this summer,” Robinson said. But now that isn’t going to happen.

The BTOP grantees were notified by the NTIA this spring that their projects were being partially suspended to ensure that LTE investments are compatible with whatever national network plan is established by FirstNet. The new board will have to decide whether to allow these projects to have access to spectrum and continue or to wait until the network architecture is in place. Opinion is divided on what they should do.

Werner credited the NTIA for making “one of the boldest and most difficult decisions I have ever seen a federal agency make.” Before the legislation passed, he thought any kind of movement on pilot projects was good. But now he would like FirstNet to be as unencumbered as possible to unilaterally set the stage. “They can set the requirements and then hold people’s feet to the fire if they don’t follow them.”

But for Charlotte, the suspension is a bitter pill to swallow. “We had crews ready to go to work,” Robinson said. “It was an opportunity to do something that would test deployment strategies ahead of when FirstNet will be able to do anything.” The most optimistic estimates are that FirstNet will begin construction in four years after planning grants, design, specs, contracts, vendors and state opt-in decisions, he said. Meanwhile, the device manufacturers will be in hold mode. “I understand the logic of stranded investment and why NTIA took the action they did,” Robinson said, “but they could put us at the back end of this process and by the time they got back to us in seven years, it would be time to refresh the technology anyway. We are hoping FirstNet will say we can use the spectrum. We have been on hold for almost four months.”

What Are Some Applications?

So what are some likely applications of a broadband network dedicated to public safety data and video? For emergency management officials, an example might be a major wildfire. Live video feeds from multiple cameras allow the incident commander to actually see events rather than hear them described on the phone. “You have the governor’s office hounding the office of emergency communications for status reports,” said McGinnis. “You could walk up to a data wall with big TV screens and grab a video feed and share that. It takes that 10-minute conversation down to one minute.”

The Charlotte project promises to offer public safety officials mobile video and field use of fingerprint and facial recognition applications. Another goal is to improve the ability of networks supporting area first responders in communicating with emergency response agencies.

McGinnis said paramedics in Washington County, Maine, with a sick patient can find themselves an hour and a half from a hospital on a day the helicopter is not flying due to bad weather. “You want to bring a virtual doctor into the back of that ambulance,” he said.

Schrier believes that the network will spawn a generation of innovations, including perhaps apps stores for public safety. “People didn’t envision what would happen with the iPhone and iPad, and now there are millions of apps,” he said. “The same thing will happen with public safety, I think. Firefighters will code apps. Some of those apps will take off like Angry Birds.”

But before any of that happens, FirstNet has to get the public safety community involved in making the network a reality. “There are tons of unanswered questions,” McGinnis said. “Will there be a national operations center? Where will it be backed up? Developing the RFP will tell the states everything about the direction.”

This is an important time for emergency management and public safety officials.

“We have a unique opportunity to get this right,” Werner added. “FirstNet needs to reach out to all the individual user organizations in public safety and to the states to ask, ‘What does this need to look like?’”

This article was originally published by Emergency Management.