Urgent Matters

The readers always write: FirstNet will not meet expectations

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Four out of five respondents believe that the much-anticipated nationwide broadband network for first responders ultimately will fall short, with politics and economics cited nearly equally as the reason.

Most public-safety and government officials have expressed support for the FirstNet board of directors and the need for a nationwide broadband network for first responders. However, an overwhelming percentage of readers responding to a recent Urgent Communications poll believe that the much-anticipated network will fall short of the lofty goals set by FirstNet Chairman Sam Ginn.

Overall, 139 readers responded to the poll question that asked, “Do you believe the nationwide broadband network for first responders will meet all of the goals set by FirstNet Chairman Sam Ginn for coverage, reliability, performance and user costs?” Certainly the results are unscientific, but 81% of respondents answered “No”—a number that should be an eye-opener for FirstNet.

Of the rest, 8% responded that the project could meet expectations, but only if Congress allocates more funding than the $7 billion currently earmarked for the first-responder network. Only 6% of the respondents said they believe that the FirstNet board has the resources it needs—with the help of public-private partnerships—to build and maintain a broadband network that will meet the coverage and performance thresholds outlined by Ginn and other FirstNet board members.

The disbelievers were almost evenly split on their reasoning—41% said politics would be the ultimate problem, while 40% said the economics would not work. However, respondents who took the time to submit comments seemed to emphasize the economic issues facing the FirstNet board.

“Every telecommunications co-worker that I've spoken with knows the FirstNet concept is a totally flawed,” one commenter wrote. “It has nothing to do what will and won't work. It has everything to do with trying to duplicate a massive infrastructure that already exists nationwide, without revenue producing income in the hundreds [of] billions to support it initially and moving forward.”

“The economics simply [do] not work,” added another commenter. Another called FirstNet an “unfunded mandate,” while yet another cited “insufficient funding.”

Another commenter was more blunt.

“Unless someone gives them a national treasury or two, it ain't gonna be a stroll through the park,” wrote one commenter.

Many comments also revealed a considerable distrust of commercial technologies like LTE.

“Recent public events have shined a spotlight on the inadequacies of the private carrier systems and we are setting ourselves (public safety) for a major disappointment if we don't get our message across,” one commenter stated.

Another commenter wrote, “You need about 20 years yet before something like this is ready for public safety. This has disaster written all over it. ... My LTE drops my signal all of the time. How is this any different?”

In addition to the doubts concerning economics and technology, many commenters expressed concern that—like many commercial carriers—FirstNet will concentrate its efforts on populous urban areas and ignore sparsely populated rural areas of the country.

“[FirstNet] will end up being a fiasco and you will end up with the haves and have nots,” one commenter wrote. “The rural areas that don't have the funding will never benefit from it. Only the cities and large jurisdictions will be able to afford it. So nothing will change from where we are now.”

Another commenter echoed this sentiment, while also citing additional hurdles that the FirstNet board could face.

“They will not be able to put this network across the U.S. landscape. The for-profit cell companies haven't been able to do that yet. Not only do you have to get the land, erect a tower and construct a building, but you also have to provide power. You [not only] will get the ‘not in my backyard’ [argument] but also ‘not on our public lands without a full environmental impact statement.’”

Although most commenters clearly believe that FirstNet will be unable to meet its stated goals, a couple opined that the board is so early in the process that it is impossible today to predict the outcome.

“I think any of the limited choices provided here could happen. With a cooperative spirit and realistic expectations—and a small dash of safe compromise—it can definitely be a success,” one commenter wrote. “Public safety will have to think more collectively than individually with this system. It can be a huge success, but some of the princes will need to think beyond just their kingdom (jurisdiction). DOD joint warfighting was not an easy pill to swallow at the Pentagon, but it works, and the result shows that by working together we achieve better success.”

“Many people are too quick to judge the effort, which is just getting off the ground. The rationale for having people who have built nationwide networks before take on the task is very clear, and from what I can see, public safety has been involved every step of the way,” the other commenter added.

Only time will tell which of these projections will pan out. However, the poll responses and comments only emphasize a feeling that I’ve had for a long time: FirstNet board members are facing a monumental task fraught with myriad challenges and potential pitfalls. If they can execute on their lofty vision and make this first-responder network a reality, they will be deserving of the greatest plaudits, and the rest of the world quickly will try to duplicate the model.

Discuss this Blog Entry 5

Anonymous (not verified)
on May 7, 2013

Dear Everyone...
Communications Interoperability is really about the Interoperability Continuum as set out 5 years ago. Technology is only one part of it. In order to be interoperable all of the factors in the continuum must be addressed. Technology is the final link to get the agencies from where they are to fully communicating with each other - after ensuring that they have covered governance, training, usage, embedding interoperability in routine operations as well as emergencies, have developed and implemented the policies and procedures....well, that is at least the idea as laid out in 2008.

on May 9, 2013

The need for disparate entities to speak with each other on radio systems has been around since radios were first deployed. The ability to interoperate has been around for a lot more than 5 years, more like five decades. Check in your wayback machine for the acronym NIIMS, which was cobbled together by state and federal wildland fire in the late 60s and early 70s. Today its called NIMS, but still follows tried, true and tested policy. The continuum chart succinctly put together what public safety has known was required for interoperability, but it would take a book to outline the single most factor defeating interoperability...governance. If we don't agree to work together and get support for this decision from our leaders, no amount of money or technology will may it work.

Mark Grant (not verified)
on May 7, 2013

Can anyone provide a example of a successful project managed by the Federal Government?

If the US Government can't run the postal service, then what would make me think they could pull off this project?

All I see is the consultants getting rich, and public safety, along with the tax payers getting screwed, AGAIN.

Anonymous (not verified)
on May 8, 2013

My cell doesn't work in suburban St. Louis and my wireline internet drops for no reason but I don't trust my life to these items so why should I put ANY faith into a public safety agency that JUST HAS TO have this system. People concern yourselves with your own community thinking of interoperability and not the other way around. Just how in the heck did we survive this long anyway?

resham (not verified)
on May 8, 2013

A successful project run by the Govt. you ask?

Yes I can name one big one, Collecting and giving our hard earned tax dollars to Corporations controlled by lobbyist.

The Govt. has excelled in this field.

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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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