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Utilities remain a potentially ideal broadband partner to public safety, FirstNet

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While there are many potential partners that FirstNet will consider, the synergies that traditional public safety has with utilities align well, from both an operational and business-model perspective.

Today is the start of the annual Utilities Telecom Council (UTC) show in Phoenix. While I unfortunately will not be able to attend the event in person, its commencement is a great reminder of the potential synergies utility communications have with other forms of mission-critical communications, particularly those involving public safety.

For those not familiar with utility communications, the sector has long depended on robust, hardened communications—primarily using land-mobile-radio (LMR) technologies—that have to work at all time, regardless of the circumstances. However, with the much-anticipated migration to smart-grid technologies, utilities would like to leverage IP-based broadband technologies that would provide greater efficiencies and customer controls.

This transformation may sound familiar, because it is similar to the stories being told in the business-critical commercial market and is expected to be repeated in the mission-critical-communications sectors that serve public safety, government and transportation entities.

On the surface, FirstNet partnering with utilities makes a great deal of business sense, for both groups. Utilities do not have a clear path to the broadband spectrum they need to deploy all of the smart-grid technologies they want. FirstNet has lots of spectrum, but it really needs many of the assets held by utilities—hardened communications sites, fiber backhaul and a large user base—to make a nationwide broadband network financially viable.

Utilities may have another limited spectrum option in the 900 MHz band, where there is a push to transform existing LMR spectrum into a 3x3 MHz swath that could support LTE technology, and utilities would be a logical customer. However, even if this effort is successful, UTC’s Brett Kilbourne has said that he believes utilities would still want to partner with FirstNet, which has a license to much more spectrum than is contemplated at 900 MHz.

In addition to business-model benefits of having utilities on the FirstNet system, there are numerous examples why it such an arrangement would be helpful in an emergency-response situation—a fact noted by FirstNet board member Jeff Johnson during a session conducted at IWCE 2014 in March.

“As a fire chief, I’ve been on many disasters or emergencies where the utility people are the most important people in my world right then. I’ve been on other emergencies where the department of transportation [personnel] were the most important people,” Johnson said. “We just had a huge mudslide in Washington, and the fire department may have had jurisdiction, but—if you don’t have trackhoes and dozers—you’re not getting much done.

“And you could add that twist to every aspect of emergency response, whether it’s mass transit or utilities. Our current thinking on that is that we’re going to broadly interpret that, so that the incident commanders at the local level can get their job done. Our current thinking is: ‘Who [the incident commander] says is important, that’s fine with us.’”

Yesterday, TJ Kennedy—deputy general manager of FirstNet, which is responsible for building a nationwide broadband network for first responders—noted in a speech that FirstNet will be seek public comment about identifying eligible users of the FirstNet system.

In short, this portion of the public-comment proceeding is expected to ask commenters to address the question, “Who is a first responder?”

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Insights from Donny Jackson concerning the most important news, trends and issues.

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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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