Urgent Matters

The readers always write: Managing FirstNet expectations

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As tempting as it may be for FirstNet haters to complain, it is important that the public-safety community be patient and maintain an open mind until the network design and financial model have been chosen.

A while back, I wrote a column in which I opined that the only way that FirstNet should be considered a failure is if it proves so inept that Congress decides to pull the plug on the nationwide public-safety broadband network and takes back the D Block spectrum and whatever’s left of the $7 billion in seed money it earmarked for the project.

As often happens, readers weighed in on this column. And, once again, I was reminded that a healthy community of FirstNet haters exists, including those who would like nothing better than to see FirstNet Chairman Sam Ginn, et al, fall on their collective faces.

I don’t understand these people—maybe they need a hug, or a puppy, or something.

But what I really don’t understand is their thinking. If FirstNet were to fail, the opportunity to build a nationwide broadband network for first responders would be lost forever—and along with it the data and interoperability improvements that the sector sorely needs. That would be terrible. First responders need every tool possible to protect the citizenry—and themselves.

I also don’t understand the rush to judgment in which many of them engage. Sure, the allegations of impropriety made by board member Paul Fitzgerald were troubling. So, too, was Ginn’s decision to investigate the allegations internally—nothing screams “cover-up” quite so loudly as an internal investigation. I would have much preferred that an independent body look into the claims.

But FirstNet really hasn’t done anything yet to merit judgment. That time surely will come, when it unveils its network design, financial model and buildout plans. And, when that time comes, we will weigh in on what we learn—both good and bad. In the meantime, we all would do well to keep an open mind.

One response I saw compelled me to respond. It was a tweet from Yucel Ors, formerly APCO’s government relations director who now is the public-safety program director for the National League of Cities. His tweet suggested that he disagreed with my contention that FirstNet only will have failed if Congress takes away its ball. I always respected Ors when he was with APCO and believed him to be highly intelligent and balanced in his positions. So I called him to see what was on his mind.

We chatted for about 20 minutes, during which time he suggested that my thinking was too black and white, offering a few shades of grey that I hadn’t considered. One was that FirstNet will have failed if it builds a network that few agencies can afford to join—no matter how technologically advanced or widespread the network is. 

“Failure won’t be measured on whether the network ultimately is rolled out from coast to coast; it will be measured by whether the network is able to sustain itself,” Ors said. “At the end of the day, does it have the subscriber base that it needs—and the business model that it needs—to sustain itself?

”Ultimately, there’s going to be competition [from the commercial carriers]. If you don’t have the users, even in those cities where you’ve deployed, there’s a risk of failure. It’s the same risk that any other carrier faces.”

That’s a valid point. In August, FirstNet ceased negotiations with the city of Charlotte, N.C., regarding a spectrum-lease agreement for the use of 20 MHz of 700 MHz broadband spectrum that FirstNet controls. Charlotte had received a Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grant and was expected to be among the early builders of a public-safety LTE network. But the spectrum-lease negotiations broke down, because Charlotte struggled to develop a viable business model for the network—largely because commercial carriers dropped their rates twice in a 14-month period—and city officials were unable to identify a price level that would be competitive with the lower commercial rates.

Ors ultimately agreed with me that expectations will have to be managed regarding the FirstNet network, which really was the point of the original column. He said that he believes FirstNet is moving along at the right pace.

“They have early deployments out there, so it’s moving along,” Ors said. “But if the expectation is, ‘Hey, I’ve got my Verizon LTE, why aren’t you guys up and running?’ those expectations are not realistic.”

FirstNet has a lot of work to do, and it’s going to take quite a while to finish the job. It’s not going to go as quickly as many people would like. It is not going to go as smoothly as many people hope. Patience will be a virtue. So, too, will be an open mind.

Discuss this Blog Entry 2

on Oct 22, 2013

I agree with Yucel's perspective. There is a lot of energy taking place right now that is looking at infrastructure and FirstNet day one deliverables. To be honest, technically, everything is already available that is needed to give us this new (communications) tool for our toolbox. FirstNet does not need to become the entire toolbox, but just another tool in it. The majority of effort that should be taking place, in my opinion, is Governance and Management. Without this solid foundation in place, nothing else should even being presented to FirstNet to consider, as no one agency will have a clue whether or not it will be able to use it. Hopefully FirstNet can begin settling down the large crowds of those that have interest in building this up, so that a very solid foundation can be built on that will last. In the interim, we will still continue to leverage commercial communication services for the majority of public safety communications (daily cell phone calls to the office, to each other, etc.).

Don Wright (not verified)
on Oct 22, 2013

Just as we are hearing that patience should be the watchword for a FirstNet rollout, some agencies are struggling to get the funding needed, and to keep the spectrum they have to continue to do the business that they must. Some in control of funding are pointing to FirstNet and asking those who manage current LMR systems why they should invest in upgrades and replacement of current systems with a FirstNet solution on the horizon. It is just as important to remember that FirstNet is still a concept with a long way to go before we can, if ever, abandon existing LMR systems. In its initial roll out, FirstNet will be an adjunct to existing networks and not a replacement. A realistic approach to these complimentary systems is needed if we really are here to support first responders.

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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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