View from the Top

How to avoid making a blind public-safety broadband decision

Each state Point of Contact (POC) will have myriad factors to consider when advising the governor whether the state should opt out of the FirstNet nationwide buildout plans. 

By Robert LeGrande, II

The passing of last year’s Middle-Class Tax legislation was a game changer for state and local governments. Prior to this legislation, each state and local government would evaluate its commercial data services for all government service needs (including public pafety) and determine which services could be funded.  Separately, state and local governments would either partner to procure or individually procure Land Mobile Radio (LMR) systems and upgrades based on the ever-evolving needs of the public-safety community.

While the need for LMR systems and upgrades will continue for the foreseeable future, wireless-data procurement services will undergo significant changes to meet the legislative requirements established by the FirstNet Authority. These changes will enable FirstNet to leverage up to $7 billion dollars in federal funding, and 20 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum to design and deploy a nationwide public-safety broadband network. FirstNet then can charge state and local government service fees for its use.

Within this new reality, state and local jurisdictions have an opportunity to make an informed decision based, on what the FirstNet Authority network will offer versus what they can build on their own. Both options will utilize Long-Term Evolution (LTE) technology in the 700 MHz spectrum, and the systems will be interoperable. How can state and local officials discern the best decision for their First Responders? What criteria should be used in making this game-changing decision? What are the implications and ramifications of any one decision? The unenviable task of making this decision falls on the shoulders of the governor, who is expected to lean heavily on the advise of the state Point of Contact (POC).

POCs will have to navigate the rough seas of a preponderance of technology, user requirements, user fees, operational costs and equipment depreciation. POCs also will have to assess security risks, local control, as could face the wrath of the first-responder community and/or local governments if he/she makes an impractical and/or unpopular opt-in or opt-Out decision.

The successful state POC must establish an iterative process based upon sound financial, engineering, and governance principles that together form a sustainable and defensible decision.

If you are a state POC, you should be saying one of the following: “OMG,” or “What the Heck?” While these sentiments are understandable, I submit that the state POC position is one of the most important within government, because it has the potential to ensure the best possible state and local public-safety communications for the next 20 years.

Having previously led the National Capital Region (NCR) through a structured engineering, financial, and governance program process, I fully understand this dilemma and offer these brief lessons learned:

First,LTE is an elegant technology that allows for dynamic jurisdictional, state, and even federal control in real-time. Leverage its power

Second, as was demonstrated so well in the recent bombing event in Boston, our first responders become partners across jurisdictions and states, and they follow well-established protocols that optimize that partnership. The network must be designed to better enable first response, as opposed to hindering it. Ensure the network enables—not disables—first response

Third, while not the only factor in today’s economy, costs matter. One must be able to fully assess the cost of constructing and operating a portion of the nationwide network and compare those to any FirstNet services fees or commercial-carrier services fees. The formula for this calculation is not a trivial one. It requires an experienced eye to determine the best approach for each individual state and local government. Develop a sound financial model from experienced sources

An example of the complexity of the decision-making process is the choice whether to opt out of the FirstNet model and utilize existing public-safety network infrastructure to construct a portion of the nationwide network. This is not entry-level thinking, and the state must demonstrate that it has experienced leadership in place to ensure success, if it pursues this route.

The recently released State and Local Implementation Planning Grant (SLIPG) is the right first step provided by the FirstNet board and NTIA, because it provides states with a source of funding to help make this critical decision. However, the decision to postpone Phase 2 of the grant significantly impacts the state’s ability to obtain all the information before FirstNet has revealed its nationwide network design and financial model. In this case, the states will not have enough time to fully explore their options and will be forced to either use the FirstNet solution or a Commercial Carrier network. It is recommended that FirstNet and NTIA reconsider its decision to postpone Phase 2, because doing both phases at the same time will result in better informed and better prepared state and local “partners.”  (State and local governments should not be considered customers.).

In any event, it is strongly recommended that every state self-fund Phase 2, even at the risk of not being reimbursed for it.  This position is further supported by the efficiency the states will be able to realize if they have one procurement for Phase 1 and Phase 2, have one or two (well-coordinated) contractors for Phase 1 and Phase 2, and that the local governments and tribes have to help provide critical information to the state once, instead of twice, as envisioned by the current grant requirements.

All things considered, this is an exciting time in public-safety communications. State POCs, in partnership with local governments and FirstNet, have the opportunity to provide secure, reliable, and available communications for our country’s first responders for the next 20 years or more.

While there is much to consider, we should not lose sight of our first responders’ needs. From my experience, they are not only our first responders; they are also our “last line of defense”. No reasonable-minded person would ever suggest that we send our soldiers into battle with technology which does not meet all their requirements; nor should we ever, ever, ever shortchange our "domestic defenders."

Robert LeGrande is former CTO for Washington, D.C., and founder of The Digital Decision.


Discuss this Blog Entry 1

Anonymous (not verified)
on May 2, 2013

States & Locals and public safety cannot wait on NTIA, FirstNet or the Federal Government to lead. They must continue to lead the way and insist on Congress, the White House and the various DC-based "corporate, industry and other national interests" to follow them! Just as state-local and public safety have done before with OCTO, MWCOG, NCR, Big 7, PSWIN and the Public Safety Alliance. Just as Minnesota, Texas and the BTOP's have done. Just as the "Early Deployers" who sought and secured 700 waivers from the FCC before any legislation was enacted! Just as NYC, Arkansas and MACINAC have done with their RFIs recently. Just as was done to secure the 24 MHz and finally the "hard" date. Its what happens outside of Washington DC's "insider, established, gentlemanly class" of telecom, FCC cronies that pushes and dictates what needs to happen for the public's safety versus what they will try to control, suppress, stall and/or exploit for their own selfish agendas - if left to their own devices -- in our nation's capitol.

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