Urgent Matters

Journey to FirstNet a story of remarkable persistence, refusal to succumb to doubters


FirstNet may be taking longer than many in the public-safety community had hoped to build the nationwide public-safety broadband network. However, the fact that that system is on the cusp of reality is remarkable, given the many challenges and doubts that have been overcome during the past decade.

“Do you believe in miracles? … Yes!”

Al Michaels

This iconic call at the conclusion of the 1980 U.S. hockey team’s “Miracle on Ice” victory against a heavily favored Soviet squad—one that some consider to be the sport’s best team of all time—continues to resonate today, even for those who were not yet born when the game was played.

Personally, Al Michaels’ words from that moment have been ringing in my ears for weeks. Not simply because I enjoy reliving this Olympic moment (although I do), but because the call seems very appropriate in a different context—the series of recent news items that have led to FirstNet awarding a 25-year contract to AT&T to build, maintain and upgrade the nationwide public-safety broadband network (NPSBN).

Is “miracle” too strong a word to associate with the NPSBN initiative? Maybe, but the same could be said about a hockey game. However, when the full context of the challenges faced by proponents of a dedicated public-safety broadband network during the past decade is considered, the use of the word “miracle” it is not a significant stretch.

Undoubtedly, some critics in public safety and the media will highlight the fact that it has taken more than 15 years from the 9/11 terrorist attacks that tragically illuminated the need for an interoperable first-responder network. Others will note that it has been five years since Congress created FirstNet, and we are still months away from even starting to construct this long-awaited broadband system.

Indeed, most had hoped that FirstNet would have moved faster.

But there is another FirstNet timeline that deserves to be recognized and applauded. U.S. Court of Federal Claims Judge Elaine Kaplan’s March 17 decision dismissing Rivada Mercury’s protest of the FirstNet procurement came within a week of the three-year anniversary of the FirstNet board approving a program roadmap that outlined more than 40 tasks that needed to be completed to make the nationwide public-safety network a reality.

You probably don’t remember that day—March 11, 2014. At the time, FirstNet seemed to be going nowhere, at least to those observing from outside the organization. Allegations festered that board members with commercial-wireless backgrounds were not listening to public safety’s needs. Hiring of much-needed staff was proving to be a slow and painstaking process. Complaints about a lack of transparency were constant.

But the biggest issue at the time was an apparent lack of clear direction. Board members were beginning to grasp the enormity and complications associated with the massive public-safety endeavor, but no one seemed to know what next steps should be taken.

That changed with the establishment and approval of the program roadmap, which clearly identified the logical—albeit winding—progression of steps to be taken in pursuit of a successful procurement.

Those who bothered to actually read through the FirstNet program roadmap acknowledged that it depicted a solid approach. But even the biggest fans of the roadmap questioned whether the 40-plus steps could be executed by an organization that accomplished little and decided even less, at that point. And, even if all of the roadmap tasks—many of which represented a ton of work—could be completed, there was a chance that it would take so many years to finish them that Congress would lose patience and halt the FirstNet initiative.

In addition, there were serious doubts whether the board could devise a business model to answer the incredibly challenging financial riddle: How do you build a self-sustaining public-safety network with $7 billion, when the lowest estimates indicate that just the initial buildout will cost about twice that amount—before expenses associated with ongoing operations and necessary technological upgrades are factored into the equation?

Discuss this Blog Entry 3

on Apr 12, 2017

Yes, it's been a long Journey so long in fact that the technology will be fully and completely obsolete by the time it even makes it into the hinterlands. And to reiterate, the fact that government is involved will make it vastly more expensive, be even later to deploy than it already is, and will be abused and mismanaged to the nth degree! Guaranteed! The vast majority of back country departments are still on VHF conventional analog systems and have never even heard of FirstNet. Besides, with the number of abuses of confidential data in major police/sheriff departments (dare anyone to do a comprehensive search on that topic and tell me otherwise) who would trust these folks with a mobile data platform that allows them to take the abuses directly to the street. Just not a good idea at all.

Andy Mouse (not verified)
on Apr 12, 2017

To all government and military officials, be ready to give up your current service provider and support the funding of FirstNet with AT&T. Enjoy it while you can :)

on Apr 14, 2017

Neverland is quite appropriate. Why did original management call it quits? Perhaps the intended mandate was impossible in the time frame? Perhaps the fix was in? Lets take a look at reality.

1.) Public safety will not be getting a dedicated network. While LTE priority standards are being developed, the network is going to be shared with commercial users, 'presumably' to defray cost to public safety.

2.) The 'new' network is mostly an accommodation of adding equipment to existing sites. This includes Band 14 and emergency generators.

3.) ATT will be paid by FirstNet (tax dollars) to surpass Verizon in data coverage. Nice deal! Because, in the near future all voice traffic on cellular networks will be VOIP/ROIP. Capacity will be bandwidth (frequency) dependent. Here's another 20MHz AT&T and, it's free! Bandwidth for a carrier is money in the bank! I wonder who's going to do NG9-1-1 when proposed federal legislation showers the tax dollars on that?

4.) Interoperability? The Internet/IP is interoperability, no matter which the carrier. Whether it turns into a tactical reality, usable in disaster scenarios, will be in AT&Ts bag. Hope there are a lot of COWS in the field! Doubtful that COML's will be able to flip that switch.

5.) Security? If the network is shared with commercial users, security will only be at the encryption lever, a bit different than originally envisioned. Can't wait for Quantum Processors! How about congestion based delays?

6.) Survivabilty? Down compared to LM systems. PTT @ 300mW does not travel very far, even using FDMA. Maybe a 700MHz P25 portable with LTE & touchscreen ($$$$)? See #4.

7.) Cost? Current LMR 2-way systems are affordable to the agency. Some agencies issue personal portables to each responder. It is a one-time cost with a stable lifetime. LMR Network costs (maintenance) are typically stable at ~15% of infrastructure. There is little operational cost to add users.

FirstNet changes the model to a user based fee. Hardened LTE Handset cost now is similar to a low end (single band) portable radio. It will be in addition to current cost unless/until secure non-network PTT is stabilized. $$ per/month per user? Bolster up that budget! Maintain both LMR & LTE, check out the price on those portables! What happens to the monthly cost if agencies do not opt in per 'projections'?

I am not saying that secure broadband access for public safety is a bad idea. Some data applications have merit, others are hype. As one who has been there and done that, I am aware that tools have their place. I would have been overjoyed with an ID app based on photos or fingerprints! But at what price? Is the FirstNet road paved with golden bricks? Are we going to see subsidized apps or will it be another license fee?

The model that FirstNet has promoted is quick & easy rather than traditional. Who bears responsibility for network operation? Not local. Who supports maintenance & emergency response services? Not local.

We have had over a half century of success with data managed at the state and local level. What would it have cost for a packaged RAN model considering jurisdictions which would have gladly come up with the capital rather than paying per/user fees? Agencies already have access to tower sites. Agencies already maintain bandwidth for access to national and state databases. Do we really need the 'do-everything' model? Given that a smartphone is legacy in 2 years, what are the ongoing/projected agency costs of obsolescence?

I posed some of these questions to FirstNet staff in 2014. Even had a nice chat with Harlan. So much for pragmatism, be interesting to see what the states do. Turning 20MHz and $7b into $228.5b? I'm sorry guys, you don't own it, your lease has an expiration date! At least you leveraged the bandwidth!

I admit there has been success at the state and regional level for replacement of disparate 2-way systems with a centrally managed trunked system. In some cases, particularly the Illinois STARCOM21 system, the public-private partnership with Motorola has endured the test of time (always pending a buy-out). However, when long-term user costs are factored in, agency budgets for communications go way up.

VOIP/ROIP and LTE based modulation/aggregate frequency use is the future. It is as certain as analog to digital. The FCC recognizes that each significant step requires a decade or more to accomplish given the cost of embedded systems. Too bad FirstNet took the steeper slope.

Call me a skeptic, I love watching the show!

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Insights from Donny Jackson concerning the most important news, trends and issues.


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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