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.

“After the law passed, someone said to me, ‘I don’t know if you guys know this, but what you just did was impossible,’” FirstNet Vice Chairman Jeff Johnson said during the special FirstNet board meeting on March 28. “I will say, in retrospect, if we had known how impossible it was, we wouldn’t have tried it.

“I think the only thing we had going for us was a bunch of hard-headed public-safety people who don’t take ‘No’ for an answer very well … We don’t take ‘No’ very well, and we don’t quit very easy. And, when public safety and the purpose of public safety [are at stake], you can’t stop. But I reflect that it really was impossible—we just didn’t know it.”

Maybe it is an example where ignorance is bliss. Or maybe it is simply a case where a good idea emerges to the surface. As my good friend Andrew Seybold—a tireless advocate for public safety, particularly when technical explanations were needed on Capitol Hill—has said and written on many occasions about supporting public-safety broadband, “It’s the right thing to do.”

And now it appears that the elusive FirstNet vision will be done—in a fashion that public safety would have had difficulty imagining when the FirstNet legislation was passed in 2012.

“You know, Congress gave us 20 MHz and $7 billion,” FirstNet board member Kevin McGinnis said during an IWCE 2017 on March 30. “As of our signing today, we’ve upped that—in just one day—to having those opt-in states having earlier access, on Day 1, to all bands in AT&T’s network while the FirstNet network in Band 14 is built out with priority, with preemption access. We had no idea that we were going to be able to jump start that fast.

“And, with that 20 MHz and $7 billion, we just turned that into $228.5 billion—based on the valuation of AT&T’s network, the money they’re going to put into the process and the $6.5 billion that we have—and 170 MHz—20 of ours, 150 MHz of theirs—on Day 1. Not a bad start.”

No kidding.

Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of work remaining—building a nationwide network is no easy task, even with a proven operator like AT&T on public safety’s side. But all of the pieces appear to be in place, thanks to contributions from more people than can possibly be listed in this column.

Yes, questions about issues such as pricing, “opt-out” decisions and local-control operations still have to be answered. But no one is associating the word “never” as a response to such inquiries, because it is clear that they can be addressed. It’s a nice change of pace, after a decade of doubts.

Now, first responders will have dedicated, public-safety-grade broadband access that can be leveraged to run applications that could not be fathomed just a few short years ago. It’s remarkable, because this FirstNet system should not exist, given the number of the times conventional wisdom said it would “never” happen.

But it will happen. Public safety, welcome to a new version of Neverland.


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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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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