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No End in Sight for FirstNet Interoperability Debate

Although more than 9,800 U.S. agencies are on board with the nationwide public safety communications platform FirstNet, a debate persists about the very issue that FirstNet is designed to solve: interoperability.

Device on FirstNet
Responders used a push-to-talk application on ruggedized devices over FirstNet to communicate across departments during the race.
FirstNet/Guy Noffsinger
Although more than 9,800 U.S. agencies are now on board with the nationwide public safety communications platform FirstNet, debate persists about the very issue it is designed to solve: interoperability.

FirstNet was created primarily to prevent technical communication failures between first responders. This need became a priority after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, during which police and firefighters at the scene were unable to communicate via radio. Essentially, they lacked interoperability. FirstNet seeks to solve that challenge with a single dedicated nationwide platform that all responders can use to communicate.  

Some stakeholders, however, now say that interoperability within the FirstNet network is not good enough. 

What’s the Problem?

On Sept. 11, 2019, the 18th anniversary of the attack that set the creation of FirstNet into motion, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) held a proceeding in response to a filing submitted by the Boulder Regional Emergency Telephone Service Authority (BRETSA). 

In its filing, BRETSA argued that interoperability within the FirstNet network is not good enough, as it overlooks that “[p]ublic safety agencies have established investments in LMR [land mobile radio] networks, and may have relationships with other CMRS [commercial mobile radio services] providers’ and investments in their service offerings.” 

BRETSA said that without “support for interoperability at all levels, including network, services, applications and devices, FirstNet will just become just another competitor in the public safety radio space leveraging market share on interoperability.” 

Thus, BRETSA requested the FCC make a rule requiring FirstNet to ensure interoperability between all existing network devices. 

Representatives of FirstNet and AT&T countered the argument, pointing out that implementing this type of interoperability would be “a challenging, if not impossible, exercise” and that the FCC no longer has jurisdiction on interoperability based on the law that created FirstNet. Verizon, which boasts a significant share of the public safety market, disagreed with this interpretation of the law.

Since the Sept. 11 proceeding, however, many public safety organizations, including a few statewide entities, have voiced support for BRETSA’s request.   

Continuing Disagreement

Chief Harlin McEwen, former chair of FirstNet’s Public Safety Advisory Committee, has decades of experience as a police officer, dating back to 1957, and McEwen said he doubts that interoperability between FirstNet and everything else out there is realistic. 

McEwen remembers a previous big push for interoperability in the late 1980s and early 1990s with something called P25, which was a set of standards for mobile radio communication. P25, which McEwen supported, ultimately failed, but he believes it still resulted in improvements to interoperability. 

“The problem is that over a period of time we realized that it was just not going to happen,” McEwen said. “Not everybody could afford purchasing the equipment built to that standard. And secondly, even if you built to the standard, it turned out there were variables within the equipment.”

Lessons learned from P25’s failure point to why Congress called for a “single, national network architecture” and why FirstNet is being maintained by one company, McEwen said. This structure allows for state and local standards to be upgraded at one time across the entire U.S., thus guaranteeing interoperability for FirstNet users. 

Additionally, McEwen said there is no obstacle to achieving interoperability between FirstNet and LMR, as they can be linked in several ways. 

Maj. Diane Stackhouse, who is the state single point of contact for FirstNet Pennsylvania, questioned the current practicality of FirstNet. In an email to Government Technology, she said it is “improbable” that all first responders will be able to join FirstNet, citing hurdles such as “disparate government procurement rules,” “differences in coverage provided by FirstNet and competing carriers,” and “existing contracts with other carriers.” 

During a public safety incident, different jurisdictions might use different carriers, including FirstNet. Stackhouse said this situation could have limitations, such as a lack of interoperability on the application level and a potential mismatch between the carriers’ priority and pre-emption rules, which dictate who can communicate on a network. 

As far as whether the law that created FirstNet already addresses interoperability, Stackhouse said that today’s public safety world is different than the one in which that law was made. 

“Since the law was written in 2012, this technology has been evolving,” she said. “First responders’ needs, in 2019, are also evolving.”

As evidenced by the many recent filings to the FCC about interoperability, this is clearly an ongoing issue of great import for those in the public safety community. The possibility exists, however, that those with differing stances are just talking past each other. 

Teri Takai is the former CIO for the U.S. Department of Defense, and she is currently executive director of the Center for Digital Government, which is part of Government Technology’s parent company, e.Republic. Takai is also a former member of the FirstNet Board of Directors, and she said a problem with interoperability is that it means different things to different people. Moreover, Takai sees a challenge for the public safety community when it comes to separating the commercial considerations of multiple providers from the technological considerations that would allow FirstNet to fulfill its purpose. 

“My opinion is there is not one thing that’s going to solve this,” Takai said. “It’s important for folks to recognize that.”

Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.