First responders in the San Francisco Bay Area will have an opportunity to use a dedicated LTE network beginning next year, after a regional authority approved a 10-year deal for Motorola Solutions to build and operate the broadband wireless system funded primarily with a federal stimulus grant.

With the action, Motorola Solutions has approval to build a much-anticipated regional LTE network — known as Bay Area Wireless Enhanced Broadband (BayWEB) system — that has been the subject of considerable controversy during the past two years. Under the terms of the $50.6 million federal grant, the network must be complete by Aug. 1, 2013.

“It was a very important milestone … but it’s not the end; it’s the beginning,” said Derek Phipps, Motorola Solutions vice president. “We now have 18 months to complete the entire implementation plan. That’s what we’re resourced to do and what we intend to do.”

Members of the Bay Area Regional Interoperability Communications System (BayRICS) joint powers authority (JPA) voted 9-4 for the system funding plan and 10-2 in favor of a build-own-operate-maintain (BOOM) agreement with Motorola. The items passed without the support of two of three largest cities in the region — San Jose voted against both items, while Oakland voted against the funding plan and abstained from the BOOM agreement vote.

When complete, the LTE network will enable first responders to access critical broadband applications on a private network designed to meet public-safety requirements, according to BayRICS Chairman Rich Lucia.

“BayWEB will enhance existing public-safety voice radio services by adding high-speed data capability, allowing our first responders in the field to send and receive maps, floor plans, photos, video, and access to a wide range of public-safety databases and applications,” Lucia said in a prepared statement.

Last year, the FCC granted the cities of San Jose, Oakland and San Francisco a waiver to deploy a broadband network on public-safety 700 MHz broadband spectrum currently licensed to the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST). The PSST later signed a spectrum-lease agreement with non-existent entity, but that deal is expected to be nullified soon and a new lease will be made with the BayRICS JPA.

Current plans call for BayWEB to have between 144 and 150 sites, Phipps said. This represents a decrease from the original proposal of a 193-site system. Given the reduction in the scope of the overall system — the public-access portion of the proposal also is being scrapped — there is a possibility that the $50.6 million in federal funding could be decreased, as well.

In addition to the federal grant money, Motorola is providing a $21 million grant match and another $23 million to pay for remediation of sites in the network. Motorola will build, operate and maintain BayWEB for 10 years, when the wireless broadband system will be given to the JPA at no cost.

Motorola is responsible for costs associated with meeting network-performance criteria mandated by the FCC as of April 2013. Any changes in the FCC network standards after that date potentially would be the responsibility of JPA member entities.

During the first year of network operation, Motorola will charge public-safety subscribers $38 per month, although the vendor can change that price tag in future years. The JPA is expected to collect about $5 to $8 per subscriber each month to cover its administrative costs.

However, the actual cost to JPA participants is expected to exceed this figure significantly, because JPA members are responsible for ensuring that there is appropriate backhaul to the sites. Many jurisdictions are counting on a negotiated deal with the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) authority to use the transit authority’s fiber network for backhaul, but that network does not extend to all JPA jurisdictions, including the city of San Jose.

JPA members also have to establish billing and technical-support systems for the network and are responsible for paying costs associated with heating and cooling equipment at the sites, roaming and creating a fund to pay for system upgrades after the 10-year contract is complete.

When these costs are combined, the overall cost to San Mateo County could be a monthly cost of $157 per user to more than $200 per user, according to Chris Flatmoe, San Mateo County’s representative on the JPA board. That is a steep cost for a private network, particularly as California government entities are struggling to make budget works during difficult economic times, he said.

“When we started started this endeavor about 18 months ago, we were wanting to see a subscription fee that is close to commercial wireless,” Flatmoe said during the JPA meeting. “We did not think it was realistic to be half of commercial wireless, because we were going to be getting guaranteed bandwidth.

“What distinguishes our network from a commercial network is that we have guaranteed bandwidth … I am willing to recommend that we pay a premium for that guaranteed bandwidth, but $157 (per user per month) or more?”

No one directly disputed Flatmoe’s calculations, although several indicated that some of his estimations for the cost to upgrade the network might be high. In addition, several noted that the JPA has the potential to get additional funding from several federal-grant sources in the future, but Flatmoe said elected officials are do not want to count on those possibilities in their decisions until the funding has not been committed.

Under the terms of the deal with Motorola, no public-safety entity is obligated to subscribe to the LTE network. Initially, the goal is to have at least 6,000 subscribers to BayWEB, which is the figure Flatmoe used.

Such calculations can be daunting, but they are not necessarily unique for public-safety communications, because of the benefits the LTE network will provide, said Barry Fraser, interim project manager for the BayRICS JPA.

“When cities and counties started implementing their voice-communications systems, you probably could have done the same analysis back then, and it would have cost a lot,” Fraser said during the JPA meeting. “But I think you have to jump in and do it. And we have this opportunity right now to take a bi, $70 million chunk of it and get it paid for without any cost to us.”
Motorola’s Phipps said he is confident that his company and the JPA jurisdictions will be able to work together to get subscribers on the network.

“It’s always initially going to be a challenge to get folks on the system, but we’re not concerned,” Phipps said. “What we’re charging for the first year is the $38 per user per month, which we think is a very aggressive rate. We’re going to make sure that we position ourselves as competitively as we can, because it’s in our interest to load the system.”

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