MINNEAPOLIS — State and local public-safety agencies will be able to provide input on the performance requirements and design of a nationwide LTE network for first responders as part of a 5-year, $135 million planning grant program beginning early next year, according to an official with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).

Initial guidance for the state and local implementation grant program was released on Tuesday, but the application period for the grants is not expected to open until the first quarter of 2013, NTIA program manager Laura Pettus said yesterday during a session at the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) show. A key reason for the delay is that NTIA needs input from the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) board, but its 15 members were only named on Monday and will not meet formally until September.

Administratively, the grants in the program will be distributed to the 56 U.S. states and territories, but larger regional or jurisdictional coalitions will be allowed to coordinate their efforts and applications, Pettus said. Funds will be distributed based on a formula and will require a 20% match from each state or territory.

Money from the grants can be used for a variety of planning purposes, such as hiring staff and consultants with LTE expertise, paying for planning meetings, reimbursing appropriate travel, and educating potential users and elected officials, Pettus said. The goal of the program is to ensure that state and local entities can have a meaningful dialog with FirstNet regarding the way the nationwide network should be constructed, operated and maintained in their jurisdiction.

With this in mind, the grant program will fund only planning-related activities, not the purchase of LTE network equipment, Pettus said.

"This is not a construction program," she said.

NTIA believes the grant program will be administered in two phases, with the first phase ensuring that each state and territory has staff with appropriate expertise, and the second phase focusing on addressing each jurisdiction's needs in preparation for consultation with FirstNet, Pettus said.

Overall, NTIA believes the state and local implementation grant program will last 5 years — 2 years for the first phase and 3 years for the other phase — according to Pettus, although it is difficult to predict at this point which phase will get the longer time period. Pettus added that she would support extending the grant program for a longer time period, but she does not believe there is enough money available to do that.

"I think there's going to be a need for the next 5 years for states to be involved in consulting and actively engaged in the public-safety broadband network," Pettus said. "The initial activities need to be done more quickly, but I don't think we're going to be done planning after three years."

Exactly what impact the 5-year planning grant program will have on the construction timeline of the much-anticipated broadband network for first responders is unclear. Although the planning program will start in 2013 and is expected to last five years, that does not necessarily mean that construction on the LTE system will have to wait until 2018 to begin, according to Jeff Cohen, APCO's chief counsel for policy and law.

"I don't think people should assume that Laura talking about a 2, 3 or 5-year period means nothing is going to happen with network deployment until that's done," Cohen said during the session. "In fact, it's a really good story, meaning that we understand that there will be an initial period of some duration that FirstNet will determine, where states will have an initial time to get the input in.

"What's important is that, under the statute, FirstNet is required to continue to consult with state and local governmental and public-safety entities. So funding being available for continuing planning is very important, because that will overlap with FirstNet's activities to develop the RFP and start getting the network deployed."