Urgent Matters

Finding a role for McEwen is a smart move by FirstNet

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Last week, the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) named Harlin McEwen as the chairman of its public safety advisory committee. FirstNet is the entity that is working with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to build out the nation's first coast-to-coast broadband communications network for first responders.

Regarding McEwen's appointment, I say, "Bravo." Frankly, I thought he should have been named to the inaugural FirstNet board of directors, though I really can't quibble with the four public-safety representatives who were named. Charles Dowd, Kevin McGinnis, Paul Fitzgerald and Jeff Johnson certainly know their stuff.

Having McEwen chair the advisory committee representing public safety makes great sense. He has been part of the effort to deliver this network — the Holy Grail of public-safety communications — from the very beginning, and no one else can make that claim. To be blunt, this initiative would not be happening if not for McEwen.

As chairman of the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) — the entity that held the 700 MHz broadband spectrum license that soon will belong to FirstNet — McEwen is uniquely positioned to offer valuable historical perspective, once again because he is the only person who was involved in the effort to bring this network to fruition from Day One.

I have heard critics claim that McEwen's thinking is too old-school, and that he is too rooted in land-mobile-radio technology to be able to grasp the new world order that has Long-term Evolution (LTE) at its center. From my perch, such a notion seems ridiculous. McEwen is very capable of evolving his thinking — I've seen him do it. I recall the first time that our paths crossed. This was many moons ago. McEwen was of the opinion that IP technology never would have a place in public safety, because it was too unreliable, and he was not alone in this thinking.

My view was that IP was evolving at warp speed, and my instincts were that, sooner or later, the engineering people would figure out the reliability challenge. (I've learned to always bet on the engineers.) It took a little while, but McEwen came around. There is no doubt in my mind that his thinking will continue to evolve as communications technology evolves — one does not serve as the chairman of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) communications committee for as long as McEwen has served in this capacity without this ability.

As McEwen embarks on this latest adventure, I have one suggestion for him: Find a role for the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC). I have heard the same things said about NPSTC that I have heard said about McEwen, that its membership is stodgy and not forward-thinking enough. But memberships can change, and NPSTC's certainly will as LTE becomes a bigger factor in public-safety communications. And some of the smartest people I know are members of that organization, which has served public safety well for a very long time.

During the first meeting of the FirstNet board in late September, Chairman Sam Ginn made it a point to say that FirstNet wants input from the public-safety community as it begins to shape what this network will look like. NPSTC was created for the very purpose of providing communications advice to public-safety agencies. It seems to me that the organization could provide similar service to FirstNet, perhaps as an element of the public safety advisory committee that McEwen — a NPSTC member — now chairs.

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Donny Jackson

Donny Jackson is editor of Urgent Communications magazine. Before joining UC in 2002, he covered telecommunications for four years as a freelance writer and as news editor for Telephony magazine....
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