States likely to consider coordinating FirstNet planning-grant efforts
Planning grants being administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) for the nationwide public-safety LTE network will be distributed to each state, but there are early indications that some states may pool their grants and coordinate planning efforts.
Chuck Robinson, director of shared services for the city of Charlotte — one of the entities awaiting permission from FirstNet to proceed with a public-safety LTE project funded by federal stimulus-grant money — said he has been working with officials from the North Carolina CIO office on the state's role in the nationwide project. North Carolina is slated to receive $3.28 million in planning grants, and Robinson said he will suggest that the state work with the state of South Carolina, which is due to receive $1.898 million in planning grants.
"The real opportunity is for us and South Carolina to really work closely together," Robinson said during an interview with Urgent Communications. "We're linked in a lot of ways now, but I think there's a real opportunity, because — if you do it that way — you bring about $5 million to bear on a larger, centralized planning.
"Plus, you've got two large utilities, Duke Energy and Santee Cooper down in South Carolina, that own just tons of infrastructure that can be brought to the table — rights of ways, transmission towers and things like that — that could help in this effort."
If North Carolina and South Carolina cooperate in the planning arena, it's likely that they will not be the only states to combine efforts. Prior to Congress passing the law that established FirstNet and dedicated $7 billion in funding, six mid-Atlantic entities — the states of Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia — formed the Mid-Atlantic Consortium for Interoperable Nationwide Advanced Communications (MACINAC) to pursue buildout of public-safety LTE.
"The key point in there is that this is about the nationwide network; it's not a separate regional network," Kenneth Boley, principal for The Interoperability Group consulting firm who also serves as the legal and policy expert for MACINAC, said during an interview with Urgent Communications.
With NTIA only releasing the guidance for the $121.5 million planning grant program last week, there has not been time for the MACINAC states to determine whether they want to pool planning resources, according to Boley. However, with the MACINAC memorandum of understanding already in place, Boley said that he expects the six participating states to consider pooling their planning resources.
"We've talked about it, and … we'll be having conversations in the next week, I hope, to figure out to what extent we're going to do that," Boley said. "We should meet very soon, because the timeline is extremely short to get the applications together."
Like Robinson, Boley said that having a multistate entity like MACINAC makes it easier to partner with large utilities that have service areas in more than one state.
"We have quite a few regional [utilities] — that's one of the attractive things about our approach," he said.
If the MACINAC states choose to work together, it already has established a governance structure, which is a key goal of the NTIA planning-grant program, Boley said.
"At this point, I'm not aware of any other multistate communications MOU governance effort — in the 700, in narrowband or anything. When we started this, we went out looking for charter examples, and we didn't find any. But there has been some interest in the regional approach."
In particular, Boley noted that some western states filed a joint response in the recent NTIA proceeding conducted on behalf of FirstNet. While time will tell whether those states opt to pool planning resources, Boley said that the group has some of the key characteristics needed to form an effective group.
"The interest is in finding states with a community of interest — not just because they're next to each other, but also because they share something in common," he said. "The big western states all have a heavy focus on the rural issues. Here, in the mid-Atlantic, we have a pretty heavy focus on more densely populated geographies.
"A fair amount of the work in doing this is going to be … getting out there and getting the face time and education time with the constituencies. But another big piece of it is going to be the development of the collateral that you use for educating them and explaining what you're up to in your state. And a lot of that can be fairly similar across state boundaries."