Public-safety entities using federal grant money to deploy first-responder LTE networks in the 700 MHz band have seen the radio-access-network portion of their projects suspended in an effort to ensure that taxpayers’ dollars are spent as efficiently as possible, a key federal official said yesterday.

Speaking at the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) Broadband Summit in Washington, D.C., National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) Asst. Secretary Lawrence Strickling told attendees that NTIA’s position on spending $380 million in stimulus grant funding changed “dramatically” when Congress enacted legislation that reallocated the 700 MHz D Block to public safety and provided $7 billion in funding for a nationwide public-safety network.

The new law also calls for the creation of a FirstNet board by Aug. 22 that will oversee the buildout of the nationwide network. By partially suspending the seven public-safety LTE projects, NTIA hopes to ensure that “the FirstNet board will have the freedom and flexibility to develop a sustainable business model that will offer services at an attractive price to public-safety organizations,” Strickling said during his keynote address.

Last month, NTIA asked the public-safety entities to halt their LTE projects, but many were uncomfortable doing so without a formal request, because some were facing an Aug. 1 deadline to complete two-thirds of the project or risk forfeiting the grant funding.

In taking the action, NTIA hopes to keep the grant money in the states and communities that received the funding, and it wants to ensure that the federal grant money is spent on gear and facilities that will be incorporated into the nationwide network, Strickling said.

Under the guidelines of the partial suspension, public-safety entities should not buy LTE-specific gear, but they can continue to work in preparation for the installation of such equipment, according to Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) Chairman Harlin McEwen, who has worked closely with the public-safety organizations pursuing the early LTE initiatives.

“Basically, you can do backhaul, towers, site preparation, buildings and things of that nature,” McEwen said. “They just don’t want anybody buying any more cores or [base stations for LTE]. If haven’t already bought them, they don’t want you to, and, if you haven’t already installed them, they don’t want you to install them.”

Some public-safety officials have said that early deployments should be supported, because they could provide real-world information that could help the FirstNet board better plan the nationwide architecture. Strickling acknowledged this point but said NTIA does not want to hurt the overall business case for the network, which will be critical to its success.

“I certainly acknowledge that proceeding with one or more of these projects could yield valuable information for FirstNet,” Strickling said. “However, proceeding with these projects when FirstNet has not even met — much less made any decisions about the network design — could put at risk the millions of taxpayer dollars that are funding these projects.

“Purchase and installation of 4G LTE equipment now could add costs to the FirstNet network and negatively impact the ultimate business case and deployment of the national network in ways that could make the network economically unattractive to public-safety customers.”

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