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.

In the Disney animated classic Peter Pan, Peter tells Wendy the way to Neverland: “second star to the right and straight on till morning.” As fantastical and vague as those Peter Pan directions are, some in 2014 would have argued that they were about as realistic as FirstNet ever reaching the end of its roadmap—much less within the aggressive timetables established for the myriad tasks.

Such doubts were only reinforced shortly after the program roadmap was approved. Within three months, four of the highest-profile FirstNet figures at the time—General Manager Bill D’Agostino, Chief Technology Officer Ali Afrashteh, Chairman Sam Ginn and Vice Chairman Craig Farrill—were out of the picture.

But things started getting done, with TJ Kennedy leading a growing FirstNet staff methodically through each step listed in the roadmap. Not only were the tasks completed, but they were being completed on schedule, give or take a few weeks—a trend that has been maintained throughout the procurement process, although a legal protest did cause the award to be delayed by several months.

In June 2014, Sue Swenson and Jeff Johnson were named as the FirstNet board’s chairwoman and vice chairman, respectively, to form a dynamic duo in the top leadership roles. Almost immediately, transparency regarding FirstNet’s activities and an increased role for the Harlin McEwen-led Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC) became trademarks for the organization.

Less than three years after the FirstNet board transition, AT&T has been awarded the 25-year nationwide contract. Based on what we know about the deal, there are no questions about the self-sustainability of FirstNet during this period—indeed, AT&T will pay FirstNet $18 billion as part of its $40 billion overall investment—even through the federal government will not be  any additional funding.

That’s an incredibly important point. Many critics of the FirstNet plan noted the lack of full funding to build out the network from Day 1, with most noting that additional federal money would be needed to make the NPSBN vision a reality. Even if the network was built, if it provided limited coverage or an uncertain future, many questioned whether public-safety agencies would be willing to adopt the service. Given that there was no doubt that $7 billion allocated by Congress simply was not enough to build the FirstNet system, industry skepticism about FirstNet was understandable.

FirstNet responded by issuing a request for proposals (RFP) that called for the contractor to make regular payments to FirstNet totaling a minimum $5.625 billion—a figure that approaches the $6.5 billion in cash that FirstNet would bring to the deal.

The RFP seemed to address all of the key operational and sustainability issues, but one huge question remained: Would any bidders submit proposals, especially with the relatively small amount of federal funding effectively removed from the deal over the life of the contract?

From the outside, it seemed like a very gutsy proposal by FirstNet, asking bidders to build a nationwide public-safety-grade network essentially for access to 20 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum. Making matters seemingly more difficult was the fact that the FCC was conducting an auction of 84 MHz of 600 MHz spectrum that would not be limited by public-safety requirements at the same time as the FirstNet was offering its spectrum.

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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