Urgent Matters

Five years later, public safety can see a light at the end of FirstNet tunnel

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It has been five years since FirstNet was established. Will it be worth the wait?

Tomorrow marks the five-year anniversary of President Barack Obama signing into law the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012. At the time, the headline-grabbing aspects of the legislation were an extension of the Social Security payroll tax cut and myriad initiatives designed to provide assistance to the large unemployed population.

Today, the tax-cut and unemployment benefits from this law largely have been forgotten. However, a generally overlooked feature of the bill finally is on the verge of becoming reality: FirstNet’s nationwide public-safety broadband network.

Depending on the outcome of a lawsuit being heard by the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, FirstNet could name its nationwide contractor within the next few weeks (if the court rules in favor of the U.S. government and Rivada Mercury does not appeal the case), or we could be waiting several months before an award is made (the outcome under almost every other scenario).

However, no matter what decision the court makes, some are probably saying, “It’s been five years since Congress passed the law creating FirstNet, and there is nothing to show for it.”

On the surface, it is an accurate statement. Today, public-safety entities cannot subscribe to a FirstNet broadband service, and deployment of the proposed network on 700 MHz Band 14 spectrum likely will not begin until next year in most parts of the country.

Given the fact that it has been 15 years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks and nine years since the failed D Block auction—the government’s first real attempt to provide a public-safety broadband network—there are understandable levels of frustration within the first-responder community. Deployment of this network should have begun by now, many will argue.

That certainly was the vision of Sam Ginn and Craig Farrill, FirstNet’s original chairman and vice chairman, respectively. Under their leadership, an outline of a network plan was unveiled at the first meeting of the FirstNet board. That approach was criticized by some as being hasty and lacking the appropriate input from public safety, but things changed dramatically in March 2014.

At that time, the FirstNet board approved a roadmap, which was followed months later by Sue Swenson being named chairwoman. Since the roadmap was adopted, FirstNet has shown steady progress, including a significant amount of outreach. There were more than 40 steps in the roadmap, and FirstNet methodically has completed almost all of them. Most of these steps have been finished within the planned timetable, and the delays that have surfaced typically have been only a matter of a few days or weeks.

More important, FirstNet managed to do something that many considered impossible by establishing a framework for its network that meets even the most challenging aspects of its enabling legislation.

Remember, the 2012 legislation calls for FirstNet to receive $7 billion to build a nationwide public-safety broadband network and mandates that the system be financially self-sustaining. While there are debates about how much a nationwide network costs—some have claimed as little as $15 billion, while others have estimated as much as $49 billion—there is no question that the figure is significantly more than the amount allocated to FirstNet. And that buildout total does not even address the cost to make technological upgrades to 5G and beyond.

Discuss this Blog Entry 2

Anonymous 2 (not verified)
on Feb 22, 2017

Donny, I applaud you for doing a great job putting lipstick on the pig. Your article does all it can to be upbeat and paint FirstNet in a good light, when the general industry knows otherwise. It’s disappointing and I hate to say it, but as predicted by many FirstNet is a lagging failure so far. Like similar predecessors, it is too slow for the market and it will likely be too slow to keep up with the needs of its customers. It's under budget from inception and could easily continue to be underfunded to provide nationwide coverage and interoperability. The successful offeror could walk away once it determines that the long-term business model is a losing proposition and fails to produce enough profit and they realize it cannibalizes revenue they would otherwise get from Public Safety agencies through their existing commercial network/service.

I would love to see this be successful in helping solve national Public Safety interoperability and provide other potential financial benefits, but all the signs point to ultimate failure. I believe that eventually all commercial service providers will be able to facilitate Public Safety (PS) voice services (they already provide broadband data to PS). The transition to commercial public safety voice is not likely to be in my career lifetime, but it’s only a matter of time. Look at private mobile data networks and how they were displaced by commercial service. While private PS land mobile voice service functionality is far more complex than private data networks ever had to provide, it's only a matter of time before the commercial networks can provide the minimum functionality, reliability, priority and security necessary to convince politicians that the extra tens of millions of dollars to install a private voice system are no longer worth it relative to the low cost of using a commercial service; even when the service is not (and may never be) as good as the tried-and-true private system. (That was a mouthful! Sorry for the run-on sentence!) It will be a sad day when that transition starts to occur, but once it does it will be hard to stop. It’s already begun in reputable jurisdictions (although the jury is still out in many cases), and while it is primarily non-public safety users, it's only just the beginning.

The other issue I see with FirstNet is a lack of interest on the part of Public Safety. I’m not saying there’s no interest, but I’ve never met anyone that is banking on this or even interested in the endeavor. It will take FirstNet a long time to build credibility amongst the Public Safety community and if it takes too long, the concept and network will likely die. Concerns and unknowns about network reliability, coverage, availability and control will work against FirstNet.

I hope I'm wrong.

AnonymousradiousersNY (not verified)
on Mar 28, 2017

The only people waiting to see the light at the end of the tunnel is the manufacturers and sales people. The other comment is spot on!

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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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