Early public-safety LTE networks could be enlightening
The last few weeks have been amazing for the public-safety-communications community. Even a month ago, industry insiders privately expressed concern over whether any spectrum language would be included in the prospective payroll-tax legislation, much less the wording that first-responder agencies wanted.
But the new law signed by President Barack Obama on Feb. 22 provided the key components public safety sought: the 700 MHz D Block spectrum, $7 billion in LTE network funding and no requirement to return its 700 MHz narrowband spectrum. Of course, there are other aspects of the law that are not appealing to public safety—notably, the requirement for agencies to clear the T-Band airwaves.
Meanwhile, everyone is anxious to see exactly how the governance model — headed by the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) — is established and maintained.
While the legislation is clear that this will be single nationwide network and that FirstNet will approve all RFP language, there is less certainty about how that will be achieved. For instance, will procurement be executed at the national, regional, state or even local level? How many LTE cores does this network need, from the viewpoint of capacity, redundancy and prioritization? If public safety wants to partner with critical-infrastructure entities in a given area, can a partner’s assets be integrated into the network, and how would such deals be negotiated?
These are all significant questions, but at least FirstNet and other key policymaking groups have some time to consider and debate such issues. Unfortunately, time is not an ally for the 700 MHz waiver jurisdictions that already are in the process of deploying LTE networks while leveraging Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) funds.
A condition of these federal grants is that the public-safety LTE network be substantially completed five months from now. While this promised to be a logistical and engineering challenge before, there are new potential complications with the passage of the new law.
All waiver entities were warned from the beginning that these early networks had to meet federal guidelines and would be integrated into a national network, so the conceptual aspect of this should not be a surprise. However, no one is certain how such a transition should occur — for example, whether local entities should be reimbursed for supplying matching funds in these early buildouts.
Government-to-government transitions — from a governmental waiver jurisdiction to the national entity — promise to be sticky, but it could pale in comparison to the complications that could arise in the San Francisco Bay Area, where private vendor Motorola Solutions could be required to transition its assets to the government before it has an opportunity to secure a financial return on its investment.
Hopefully, people much smarter than me have developed solutions that address these issues and others, such as whether these early movers will still be eligible for federal funding in future years. Regardless of how they are resolved, it would be nice if at least some of the BTOP projects are able to proceed. After all, there is a lot that we don’t know about public-safety LTE, and past experiences with other technologies tell us that much of it can only be learned via the deployment and use of live networks.
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