Mississippi faces key funding decisions for statewide P25 network
Mississippi legislators will need to provide several millions of dollars in funding, or the statewide P25 network—supporting about 20,000 users for federal, state and local governments—will have to shut down next February, according to a key official with the Mississippi Wireless Communication Commission (WCC).
“We’re at a fork in the road,” Vicki Helfrich, executive officer for the WCC, said during an interview with Urgent Communications. “Decisions have to be made, and our LMR system has to be our priority.
“It’s not a good situation. It’s sad, because of all the progress, all the work and how far this commission has gone in making improvements in the state communications, interoperability and unity. I can tell you hundreds and hundreds of success stories about how great this system works.”
Under the guidance of the 16-member WCC during the past seven years, Mississippi now has a 700 MHz P25 Phase 2 system—known as the Mississippi Wireless Information Network (MSWIN)—throughout the state that provides mission-critical communications to 9 federal entities, 22 state entities and more than 200 local jurisdictions, according to Helfrich.
During the legislative session that ended in April, the WCC sought $14.5 million in funding to pay operating expenses on the P25 network for a year—estimated to cost about $11 million—and some expansion projects, Helfrich said. Instead, Mississippi lawmakers approved $6 million in funding, which is enough only to operate the P25 system through January 2014, she said.
“We will not make it past January, if we don’t receive funding from the legislature,” Helfrich said. “I’m hopeful the legislature will provide us the funding we need to continue operations. But if we don’t receive those funds, we will have to turn down the network.”
Legislators have required the WCC to submit a business plan in August that would generate 50% of the operating revenue needed for the P25 network during fiscal year 2015 and 80% of the operating revenue by fiscal year 2016, Helfrich said. Initially, the WCC proposed that users pay a subscriber fee, but that approach proved to be problematic and was abandoned two years ago, she said.
“What we encountered was that it is very hard for a lot of these rural, local entities to come up with the money just to buy these [P25] radios,” Helfrich said. “When you start looking at user fees, MSWIN is not an option for them.”
One possible revenue-generating strategy that the WCC is considering is allowing utilities to access the P25 network—the network has 20,000 users but can support 128,000—but Helfrich is not sure if the necessary deals can be negotiated in time to meet the legislature’s August deadline.
“We’re looking at all possible options,” she said.
WCC officials hope the legislature will provide the necessary deficit funding in January to keep the P25 network running, Helfrich said. Without the funding, the 20,000 users—many of which abandoned their own private networks to join MSWIN—will need to find alternative communications networks in a short time frame, she said.
In addition, the potential shutdown also would impact Mississippi’s public-safety LTE plans, because the state’s LTE plans rely largely on sharing sites with the P25 network, Helfrich said.
“Without the LMR system, there is no LTE, because we leverage the MSWIN system for this LTE project,” she said. “So, the LTE system is sitting on [MSWIN] towers and using the backhaul and everything—they’re very tied together.”
Mississippi’s public-safety LTE deployment initiative was funded through a federal stimulus grant, and the equipment has been purchased. However, the project was halted last year by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which froze all such LTE deployments funded by stimulus grant money. Mississippi is one of seven grant recipients negotiating a spectrum-lease arrangement with FirstNet that is expected to be approved by NTIA, allowing the projects to proceed.