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.

But overcoming doubts has been a hallmark of this public-safety broadband initiative, even before the word “FirstNet” was created by law in 2012. After Morgan O’Brien made his proposal at IWCE 2006 for the allocation of 30 MHz of broadband spectrum to public safety in the 700 MHz to build a dedicated LTE network for first responders, the naysayers offered many legitimate arguments, noting that O’Brien would:

  • Never get the FCC to allocate broadband spectrum to public safety;
  • Never get the FCC to reallocate public-safety wideband spectrum to broadband;
  • Never get the FCC to move quickly on the notion of  a public-safety 700 MHz network;
  • Never get public safety to accept LTE, which was a cutting-edge, data-only standard at the time and based on Internet Protocol (IP), which many first-responder agencies did not trust at the time; and
  • Never get anyone to make a qualifying bid on the D Block spectrum in 2008.

Although O’Brien, McEwen and the FCC’s newly formed Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) overcame the first three items, the FCC’s D Block auction failed in 2008.

Soon after, many in public safety feared that the 10 MHz of D Block spectrum simply would be auctioned commercially, instead of being paired with the PSST airwaves to establish a 20 MHz block to support first-responder use. Concerns at the time included the fact that public safety would:

  • Never get all of its factions to agree on an advocacy—public safety doesn’t use the word “lobby”—position with Congress;
  • Never get any carriers to support the public-safety need for the spectrum;
  • Never accumulate the political capital outside of public safety needed to get Congress to act;
  • Never convince House Republicans to support giving the D Block to public safety instead of conducting a commercial auction;
  • Never get any kind of legislation passed by a very partisan, dysfunctional Congress;
  • Never get the D Block included in proposed omnibus legislation; and
  • Never get any meaningful funding, even if the D Block spectrum was allocated to public safety.

Astonishingly, a newly formed organization known as the Public Safety Alliance led a successful advocacy campaign on Capitol Hill, with notable support from nationwide carriers Verizon and AT&T, as well as the “Big 7” state and local government associations.

In February 2012, Congress created FirstNet as part of a massive piece of legislation, allocating the D Block and the PSST spectrum to the fledgling organization to provide a 20 MHz spectrum base for a nationwide network. In addition, Congress earmarked $7 billion in future spectrum-auction proceeds to FirstNet.

Of course, creating an organization did not guarantee that a network would get built. Many doubters noted that FirstNet would:

  • Never have a cohesive board with the members coming from very different commercial, government and public-safety backgrounds;
  • Never be able to overcome early setbacks created by allegations, confusion and mistrust associated with the initial directions of the board;
  • Never be able to build a nationwide network for $7 billion;
  • Never build a meaningful public-safety network without additional funding from Congress;
  • Never be self-sustaining, especially if coverage was provided to rural areas of the country;
  • Never be able to complete the 40-step roadmap;
  • Never issue an RFP that meets the lofty goals of its legislative mandate;
  • Never get a bid from legitimate entities willing to build a public-safety-grade network and pay FirstNet; and
  • Never will get federal-government support if Republicans control Congress and the White House, because FirstNet was created when Democrats controlled the White House and the Senate.

In addition, the Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR) led a parallel effort within the 3GPP standards body to get public-safety-specific functionalities included in the LTE standard—something many industry analysts thought would never happen in a carrier-dominated environment.

Amazingly, all of these “nevers” listed on the above bullet points have been overcome during the last decade, despite the incredible odds. Each bullet point represents a significant hurdle that had to be cleared, usually requiring considerable effort. If any of the bullet points listed were not addressed, there was a real risk that the public-safety broadband initiative would have been compromised in some way, if not unraveled entirely.

And, believe me, this list is a very short, extremely condensed version of what really happened.

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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