Urgent Matters

Government officials anxious for FirstNet clarity while contemplating long-term plans

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Public safety may have the greatest interest in the outcome of a court decision that could clarify when FirstNet will be able to award its nationwide contract, but many other sectors also could be impacted.

Last week, the city of Boston and the Bay Area Regional Interoperable Communications System Authority (BayRICS) submitted a legal brief requesting that the U.S. Court of Federal Claims decide the Rivada Mercury protest against the FirstNet procurement process “without any unnecessary delay.”

Neither Boston nor BayRICS offered any input into the merits of the Rivada Mercury lawsuit—a wise choice, given the fact that all meaningful details of the case have been closed to the public—but they expressed a desire for a quick resolution of the matter “so that the important build out of the FirstNet network can proceed.”

This sentiment was shared by most in the critical-communications industry, whether they support FirstNet or oppose the initiative to build a nationwide public-safety broadband network. At this point, industry stakeholders are just anxious to have some semblance of certainty regarding the endeavor, so they have the information needed to formulate long-term strategies for their critical-communications systems.

When will FirstNet be built in my area? What kind of reliability and performance can be expected? How much will it cost to subscribe to FirstNet services? What kind of coverage will be provided in my jurisdiction? Who will qualify for prioritized access to the network? These are just some of the questions that have been asked repeatedly by public safety, as well as others in the critical-communications industry—governments, utilities, transit authorities and vendors.

To date, such questions are unanswered, and they promise to remain that way until FirstNet is able to award its nationwide contract to one of the bidding teams participating in the nationwide procurement process (AT&T’s bid is the apparent selection of the evaluation team, based on statements in legal documents and SEC filings).

This uncertainty has created headaches throughout the critical-communications community. This is particularly true of officials representing public-safety entities that ordinarily would need to update land-mobile-radio (LMR) networks during the next three to five years.

Many of these officials are stuck in a seemingly no-win situation made even more difficult by the fact that no one knows what FirstNet will become and whether LTE mission-critical push-to-talk (MCPTT) will meet public safety’s needs. One of the few certainties they have today is that making the wrong choice could cost them their jobs.

Consider the following two nightmare scenarios. Although they are polar opposites, both are possible, based on what we know today.

Nightmare Scenario #1: The decision is made to not upgrade the LMR network. Instead, money is saved by not investing in the LMR system—or just making low-cost patches—with the hope that public safety can migrate to MCPTT on FirstNet or some sort of prioritized commercial LTE offering. Unfortunately, MCPTT does not prove to work well enough to meet public safety’s needs.

Discuss this Blog Entry 4

bsterry (not verified)
on Mar 1, 2017

In scenario #1, this is not even a viable option. LMR for mission critical voice is not going to go away for some time. There is no PTT on LTE for Mission Critical Communications yet and is not anticipated for 10 years or so, also to build the FirstNet network to a point that it provides 95% mobile or portable coverage is a ways down the road. Then there is the issue of user to user communications off network which you have now with LMR systems. Dependable voice communications on FirstNet is still in my opinion 10-15 years out and that is the life span of a modern day LMR system.

CaptObvious (not verified)
on Mar 1, 2017

LMR is dying, the only question is when is it dead? It is technically obsolete, expensive, and lacks services needed for first responders. The obvious way forward for first responders is to maintain LMR at minimal cost while Firstnet gets up and running, then shut down LMR when Firstnet services are satisfactory.

Firstnet Watcher (not verified)
on Mar 3, 2017

FirstNet is, at this point, data only. The FirstNet folks are saying that the network spec'd on the RFP is data - not voice. Did this change?

Mr. C (not verified)
on Mar 19, 2017

Ah......how about the recent AT&T 911 outage? I would still rely on my old voice and some data LMR P25 Ph 2 system. We'll have to see as Firstnet builds out. A single CORE for the country? hummmm? I'm already worried.

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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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