First-responder agencies subscribing to the FirstNet broadband service should pay monthly rates that are at least competitive with commercial service rates, and the network architecture is expected to be clarified within a year, according to key FirstNet board members.

During a recent presentation to the National Governors Association (NGA), FirstNet Chairman Sam Ginn was asked whether the monthly rates for FirstNet service would be less than commercial broadband services currently used by many public-safety entities. Ginn said "there's no reason why they shouldn't be," noting the economies of scale that FirstNet can leverage.

"[States] will probably pay 5 [times] what we will pay for an order of 3 million units of whatever item," Ginn said during the NGA meeting. "We will have failed, if we don't build this network cheaper than you can build it."

Fellow FirstNet board member Jeff Johnson agreed, although he stopped short of promising lower rates, because the FirstNet business plan is still largely unknown.

"We know that our entry point into this market has got to be at or below what they're currently paying for service, because there isn't a mandate that people buy the FirstNet services," Johnson said during an interview with Urgent Communications. "So, we're going to have to keep this within what they're accustomed to paying, or we're not going to get any customers. And, if we don't get any customers, we've failed."

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Given the fact that the FirstNet network will be dedicated to first responders and built to public-safety standards of hardening and reliability, Johnson said he believes first-response agencies may be willing to pay more for FirstNet access, but only by a few dollars per month.

To build a network that meets the lofty coverage, hardening and reliability goals set by the FirstNet board and have rates that are competitive with commercial carriers, FirstNet will have to establish effective partnerships. Although Ginn mentioned three nationwide carriers — AT&T, Verizon and Sprint — when giving a hypothetical example of partners when answering questions at NGA, Johnson said no partner arrangements have been decided.

"We do not know who will be our partners," he said. "We fully expect to have partners, but we don't know who they are, whether it's a consortium of public providers, commercial carriers or some mix of both.

"What we do know is that partnerships are going to be key to holding the prices down. We also know that partnerships are going to be key to a speedy deployment of the network."

In fact, the FirstNet board hopes to hear about several partnership ideas when representatives visit states during an upcoming outreach tour, Johnson said.

"We may stumble across opportunities that the states have for partnerships, infrastructure and needs," he said. "If we don't start a dialog with the states where we can harvest those opportunities, we're going to walk right past them.

"Nothing would make us happier than to [visit] a state, sit down at the table, and have them say, 'Here's our challenge: We have this utility, this infrastructure and this opportunity. How do we make this good for everybody to enhance the strength of the network?' That's our fantasy."

Both Ginn and Johnson last week indicated that the FirstNet board hopes to finalize the architecture of the broadband network during the next year. FirstNet's engineering team is modeling at least three different architectures in an effort to determine which one will work best, Johnson said.

"Within the next year, one of those is going to very clearly start to emerge as a leader," Johnson said. "Between the engineering homework … and the conversations that we're having with potential partners, about a year from now, the fog is going to start to lift."