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FirstNet officials hint at business-plan components

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While dynamic specrum arbitrage might be a strategy used by FirstNet to deploy it's nationwide first-responder broadband within budget, "it won't play a big role in what we do," said General Manager Bill D'Agostino. However, he added that FirstNet is eager to identify partnership deals that would allow it to leverage its expected excess spectrum capacity--largely with carriers that need additional capacity, and with entities that can bring assets to the table, such as utilities.

FirstNet has not unveiled its business plan, but key officials recently identified some of the potential components of the model that the organization is trying to develop that would make the nationwide network for first responders a reality, within the budget it received from Congress. A key factor is that the network must be both self-sustaining and affordable in the long run.

And building within budget looks to be a must. After the law was passed that created FirstNet, many noted that $7 billion would not be enough money to build out a nationwide LTE network, and Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) indicated that the amount could be increased at a later date. However, Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) indicated during a recent House subcommittee hearing that FirstNet officials should not count on additional federal funding.

“I know that, in this debate, one of the underlying themes was, ‘Don’t worry, the government will bring you more money, if you don’t get it right,’ and I don’t think you can assume that,” Shimkus told FirstNet Chairman Sam Ginn during the hearing.

Ginn indicated that he understood the federal government’s fiscal situation, describing the $7 billion budget as a “personal and organizational challenge” that he plans to meet, no matter how many times FirstNet has to revise its business plan.

“If we get to the bottom line, and we’re not there [within budget], then we’re going to reiterate the whole process and look to take out other costs,” Ginn said.

Ginn said that 70% of the cost of the network would be associated with securing cell-site locations. One thing that FirstNet will seek is the ability to place sites on state and federal government buildings without having to pay rental fees, which would “dramatically decrease the cost of providing the network” and allow FirstNet to spend the $7 billion in other areas, he said.

In addition to the $7 billion, the other key resource that FirstNet has is the license to 20 MHz of contiguous spectrum in the 700 MHz band. While the primary purpose of these airwaves is to provide the spectral foundation for the FirstNet terrestrial network, the expectation is that first responders will not need all of the available capacity in a given cell sector, unless there is an emergency at that location.

Generating revenue from this “excess capacity” is expected to be a component of FirstNet’s ultimate business plan—a notion Acting Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blanks shared with FirstNet board members shortly after their appointment. One approach to this that has garnered considerable attention is dynamic spectrum arbitrage, which has been proposed by Rivada Networks.

Some proponents have argued that this may be the only realistic way to fund the network. FirstNet General Manager Bill D’Agostino did not dismiss the possibility of using spectrum arbitrage, but he downplayed its potential role in the larger FirstNet business plan during the “Future of public-safety broadband” session that was part of last week’s IWCE virtual trade show.

“There’s no question in my mind that the excess capacity and the ability to arbitrage the spectrum won’t play a big role in what we do,” D’Agostino said. “We’re just not going to bet the farm that that’s the only answer for us. We’re going to create a plan that allows us to build this network in a balanced way that takes all of [FirstNet’s] assets into consideration.”

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Glenn Bischoff is the editor-in-chief and publisher of Urgent Communications magazine. Over a 30-year journalism career, his publications have won several ASBPE awards for editorial excellence. He...

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