Early deployments can be key to FirstNet success
Last month, the FirstNet board voted to open the door to allowing jurisdictions that were awarded federal Broadband Technologies Opportunity Program (BTOP) grants to build public-safety LTE networks to again pursue the projects, which have been suspended for almost a year to allow FirstNet to get established.
Officials for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) — the entity that administers the BTOP grant and is most closely associated with FirstNet — decided to halt the projects just a few months before many of them were scheduled to become operational to ensure that the FirstNet board would be able to ensure that each project would fit into the nationwide network architecture, so federal dollars would not be wasted.
FirstNet has opened the door for the seven BTOP recipients to restart their public-safety LTE deployments, but it is not a foregone conclusion that all of these projects will be built. Each one will have to negotiate an agreement with FirstNet that is designed to ensure that the new broadband networks eventually can be integrated into the nationwide network.
According to FirstNet board member Sue Swenson, who is leading the outreach to these BTOP recipients, all seven want to pursue their planned buildouts. In addition, it is clear that FirstNet board members recognize the value of these early network deployments (including Harris County, Texas, which is operating an LTE network funded largely with non-BTOP federal grants) as testbeds that can be used to identify some of the benefits — and pitfalls — of public-safety LTE. Lessons learned can then be implemented in the larger nationwide architecture and buildout of the broadband network.
And there is a wide variety of lessons to be learned, because the BTOP recipients’ networks include a lot of the more challenging demographics that FirstNet will face in the nationwide rollout.
BTOP plans include statewide systems, county systems and regional systems using different governance models. From a technical standpoint, there is an opportunity to learn how LTE works in various environments — urban and rural, mountainous and flat, with a variety of foliage characteristics. In addition, these early deployments promise to provide a lot of operational and business-model information that should be valuable in planning a nationwide network
Although both FirstNet and the BTOP recipients want these LTE projects to proceed, there are factors that could prevent it. Not surprisingly, the biggest issues revolve around money.
When NTIA suspended the BTOP projects a year ago, the city of Charlotte and the state of Mississippi were on track to deploy their public-safety LTE networks last summer. In both cases, the LTE gear had been delivered and was sitting in warehouses or was in the process of being deployed at various sites.
Of course, NTIA suspending the projects did not mean time stopped, and both entities were faced with some difficult interim choices. No one wanted to disband the project teams, but individuals on those teams still needed to be paid. Similarly, lease agreements for the base-station sites had to be honored, even though the network could not be deployed.
Finding a way to address this financial gap is a major issue for many BTOP recipients. Charlotte’s financial “gap” during this period exceeds $1 million in unbudgeted expenses, according to Chuck Robinson, director of shared services for the city of Charlotte. In addition, new codes for towers became effective last year, so it will cost more to deploy the system than was budgeted three years ago, when the city applied for the BTOP grant.
Mississippi is facing a similar situation, according to Vicki Helfrich, executive officers for Mississippi’s wireless communications commission that is overseeing that BTOP project. In addition, Mississippi is facing a time crunch — more money is needed to complete the project, but the state legislature’s 90-day session ends on April 6, she said.
“[FirstNet officials] are very mindful of the fact that we are in the middle of a legislative session,” Helfrich said during an interview with Urgent Communications. “If we’re moving forward, we need to know, because that’s going to make difference in whether we can get the funding we need for LTE.”
There are other issues. For instance, the NTIA grants specify that the BTOP projects will meet the requirements necessary for the LTE networks to be part of the nationwide network eventually. Robinson said Charlotte officials are seeking assurances that the city will not be penalized if FirstNet adopts more stringent requirements in the future.
In addition, Robinson said Charlotte would be happy to conduct specialized testing that could be used by FirstNet to model its nationwide architecture, but the BTOP funding does not include money to pay for such work. Details regarding how the Charlotte network would be transferred to FirstNet also need to be determined.
On the surface, none of these issues appear to be so significant that deals cannot be negotiated. Lets hope that is the case, because the lessons learned from having these real-world networks deployed could be invaluable to FirstNet.
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