Charlotte awaits FirstNet approval to proceed with LTE plans
Once it receives permission from FirstNet, the city of Charlotte, N.C., plans to implement its halted public-safety LTE plans as quickly as possible, which should result in a fully deployed broadband system in 2014 or early 2015, according to Chuck Robinson, director of shared services for the city of Charlotte.
“If I get a green light [from FirstNet] in February, then we are going to turn on the afterburners,” Robinson said during an interview with Urgent Communications. “But that will depend on how we negotiate the frequency agreement [with FirstNet to use the 700 MHz broadband spectrum] — that will be critical for how we go forward.”
Charlotte was one of seven public-safety jurisdictions in the U.S. that was awarded federal stimulus grants — as part of the Broadband Technologies Opportunity Program (BTOP) — to fund the deployment of 700 MHz LTE networks for first responders. The first phase of deployment was supposed to be done last summer, but the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) halted the deployments early in 2012 to ensure that the FirstNet board would have input into the initiatives.
In August 2012, the FCC granted Harris County, Texas, and Charlotte permission to operate LTE systems using special temporary authority (STA), but Charlotte declined to proceed at that time, because it wanted greater certainty than operating under an STA would offer.Losing almost a year on the project has been a hardship for the city, Robinson said.
“Unfortunately, project-team members get lost [during the interim],” he said. “We’ve been trying to hold on to our program manager — people sitting on their hands is not a good thing for anyone who runs a business, because it’s just cash out the door. So, trying to reassemble the project assets and things like that is going to take us a little bit of time.
“But we have a valid design, and we’ve got stuff in a warehouse, so we can begin deployment within three or four months after we get the go ahead [from FirstNet]. Then, it’s manufacturing cycle time to get the stuff in the air. From go to being fully deployed, we’re probably looking at 18 to 24 months.”
During the FirstNet meeting in December, board member Ed Reynolds recounted his visit to Charlotte and other BTOP jurisdictions, noting that FirstNet needs to “move expeditiously” to give direction to each entity. Reynolds said that he would like to see FirstNet make a decision as early as this month.
Meetings with Charlotte officials were enlightening to the FirstNet team, which learned that the city is paying $30 per SIM card — instead of the $1 or less that is spent in the high-volume commercial wireless market — because there is almost no demand for Band 14 SIM cards at the moment.
“I’m going to have to buy them in lots of 2,000,” Robinson said. “Compared to the cellular market, that’s teeny-tiny, and that is the reason why it’s so hard to get anybody interested in it.”
Another business-model factor that needs to be addressed is the strategy surrounding mobile-access routers used in police cars and other public-safety vehicles, Robinson said. Because of installation costs, these routers are expected to last several years before being replaced, but the 3G routers currently deployed hit the market 8-9 years ago and are nearing their end of life.
As public-safety agencies migrate to 4G LTE mobile-access routers, each entity will have to determine whether to install new routers that access only commercial carriers’ networks or more expensive routers that are designed to access the Band 14 spectrum that will be leveraged in the nationwide public-safety network, Robinson said. Public-safety agencies that opt for the less-expensive commercial option may not be able to even consider subscribing to the FirstNet network, because they could not afford to replace all the mobile-access routers, he said.
“I think that was one of the issues that we brought up that caused [FirstNet board members] Ed Reynolds and Paul Fitzgerald to look at each other and say, ‘Oh my God, we’re losing customers even before we start,'” Robinson said, adding that he would like to see FirstNet take action to address this situation.
“I know they can’t provide grants, but maybe they can provide subsidies of some kind to cover the difference between a standard 4G modem and a Band 14 modem — there’s a premium there that, depending on the vendor, is pretty significant,” he said. “And, if they did that, they would be building the customer base before they have a product.”
Meanwhile, Charlotte is losing about $65,000 per month as its LTE project remains idle, Reynolds reported to the FirstNet board. Robinson said that the real costs may be greater, because vendor Alcatel-Lucent likely will seek to renegotiate its deal with Charlotte as a result of the extra costs it incurred during the NTIA freeze.
Charlotte officials have been running various business models in an effort to make up for the lost time and money, Robinson said.
“I’ve got to figure out a way to cover this gap, because no one’s going to help me cover it,” he said.
Charlotte plans to have its network become part of the nationwide network and would like to serve as a real-world pilot for FirstNet, Robinson said.
“We are absolutely open to that, and that was part of our briefing,” he said. “We’re all about the national network and always have been. We’ve always seen ourselves as this component of it [the national network] that would get absorbed at some point.
“So, I want to do all the testing that they want to do, and I told the panel that. But we can’t lose sight of the fact that this is an operational network, and I haven’t got a lot of money to do testing. Whatever they’re willing to pay for, we’ll absolutely do it.”