The FirstNet board overseeing the buildout of an nationwwide LTE network last week made much-needed strides in public-safety outreach and communications.
From the moment Congress enacted legislation that called for spectrum and $7 billion in federal money to be used for the buildout of a nationwide broadband network for first responders, the industry has waited anxiously for clues from the board about how it plans to execute this massive endeavor.
During the initial weeks and months, the FirstNet board did not say much, with good reason — after all, its members were only appointed in August and still were in learning/listening mode. For the most part, the only public statements from FirstNet were spoken during the board's first meeting on Sept. 25, when conceptual plans for both network deployment and application development were unveiled.
While some applauded these conceptual presentations as a sign of tangible progress, others expressed concern that the board was proceeding with a lack of transparency and input typical for a public-safety project. During the second FirstNet meeting conducted last week, it was clear that this transparency issue was acknowledged, because the board now is seeking input into the project from various sources — most notably, the first responders that the network is designed to serve.
This desire for input has manifested itself in several ways: the notice-of-inquiry (NOI) proceeding that concluded on Dec. 1; the visits to BTOP entities that want to deploy earlynetworks; the creation of a user advocacy officer position, which is being filled by Jeff Johnson until a full-time person can be hired; and a visit to New York City communications offices in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, which allowed some non-public-safety members to better understand first responders' need for a resilient network when things are at their worst.
Meanwhile, FirstNet board members also are beginning to speak publicly outside of its board meetings, such as when Charles Dowd and Tim Bryan did during last week's IWCE/Urgent Communications virtual trade show. (Note: This event is archived if you missed the live event; free registration is required.) This is a great step, because such outreach not only will enhance the kind of input FirstNet will receive, it also should quell many of the misconceptions that tend to be spread when there is an absence of information coming from the most credible source.
Indeed, even a simple statement from FirstNet board members that, "We don't know yet," is helpful, because some in the industry have tried to imply that many aspects of this network already have been determined. In reality, most of the key issues — deployment strategy, potential network partners, procurement approach, etc. — have not been determined yet, Bryan and Dowd said.
To be sure, there are still numerous difficult decisions to be made regarding the governance, technical and financial aspect of this network, which Chairman Sam Ginn described as "one of the most complex telecommunications projects in the history of the United States." But public-safety officials should be encouraged by the fact that the FirstNet board wants to hear their input while pursuing an aggressive timeline to deploy the network
After all, when the FirstNet board members were announced, some public-safety officials privately expressed concern that board members with commercial-networking backgrounds would not grasp what first responders need from this much-anticipated network. Ultimately, only time will tell whether they can deliver what public safety needs, but the recent signs of outreach and a willingness to listen to first-response officials indicates that the process is moving in the proper direction.
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