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Significant questions remain after FirstNet board appointments

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Any public-safety agencies or vendors expecting a great deal of additional clarity — as a result of the announcement of the 15 FirstNet board members — regarding the LTE buildout in the short term may be disappointed.

With the much-anticipated announcement of the 15 First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) board members complete, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has met a key statutory deadline associated with the nationwide public-safety broadband network that will utilize 700 MHz spectrum. However, any public-safety agencies or vendors expecting a great deal of additional clarity regarding the LTE buildout in the short term may be disappointed.

Clearly, having the 15-member FirstNet board appointed is a huge step in the right direction, because the law dictates that FirstNet will hold the spectrum license and determine how the first-responder LTE network will be built and maintained. Without the board in place, no tangible progress could be made, as evidenced by the stagnation of public-safety LTE projects during the past several months.

But the naming of the board is not likely to result in a rush of answers to the lengthy list of questions that the public-safety community has been asking since Congress passed the law in February that reallocated the 700 MHz D Block to first responders and called for $7 billion in federal funding to the project.

After all, the board will not have its first meeting until next month, and some of its early decisions may be focused on how it will operate and what kind of outside consultant or other staffing it will need. In addition, although the state and local implementation grant guidance was released yesterday, the applications process for grants will not start until after the first of the year, NTIA Administrator Lawrence Strickling said yesterday during a session at the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) show.

"There's a very obvious reason for this [timeline]," Strickling said. "To be efficient, we need to have a better sense from FirstNet what it is they would like to learn from the state and local governments. So, I think we're definitely going to be using some of the time this fall to work more closely with the board to understand better what they want."

This line of thinking makes a lot of sense, but starting a grant-application process during the first quarter next year means that funding for state and location implementation planning may not be available until next summer, which is not as quick as many public-safety representatives were hoping.

Perhaps the most anxious in the public-safety community are those agencies and vendors that were planning to deploy LTE networks this year. NTIA stopped a lot of this work earlier in the year by asking agencies not to use federal grants — the key source of funding for the projects — to deploy LTE sites.

The FCC recently passed rules to allow early public-safety LTE buildouts on the original 10 MHz of broadband spectrum licensed to the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) but not on the 10 MHz (5x5 MHz) of D Block. NTIA has responded with a letter asking the FCC to reconsider this approach, because it believes any early deployments should use the full 20 MHz (10x10 MHz) of broadband spectrum allocated to public safety in the 700 MHz band.

"We feel that there are very valuable lessons to be learned, but that's diminished significantly, if the early-build networks are not built to the 10x10 capacity," Anna Gomez, NTIA's deputy assistant secretary, said during the APCO session. "That's why we noted to the FCC our concerns and asked them to take a look at it."

Indeed, deploying a 10x10 network is what every public-safety agency would prefer, because it promotes greater network efficiency and data-throughput speeds. However, there is a serious question whether the FCC can provide special temporary authority (STA) on the D Block, which will be licensed to FirstNet — most industry observers believe that is why the FCC didn't include that spectrum in its recent ruling.

Exactly what impact this situation will have is unknown. The good news is that Strickling and Gomez both expressed support for early LTE buildouts. However, legal uncertainty typically does not lead to accelerated action, and the questions regarding spectral jurisdiction could be a problem, if 10x10 MHz usage is a prerequisite to early public-safety LTE deployments.

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