Early public-safety LTE builders share lessons learned
ANAHEIM, Calif.—Officials representing four jurisdictions that have initiated efforts to build out a public-safety LTE system yesterday shared advice based on their experiences during a roundtable discussion at the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO) conference.
One of the panelists was Chuck Robinson, director of shared services for the city of Charlotte, N.C., which last week saw its attempt to negotiate a spectrum-lease agreement with FirstNet fail, because the city could not identify a viable business model. Although Charlotte will not be allowed to build out its LTE network as planned, FirstNet officials have indicated that the city can use its grant money from the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) for other initiatives that could help FirstNet deploy a network in the region.
“We’re still plugging away behind the scenes to see what can be salvaged out of this,” Robinson said. “One thing about Charlotte is that it often takes a licking, but we usually come back stronger with great performance.”
During the session, Robinson noted that one of the big problems facing the city of Charlotte was its planned operational budget. When planning its network several years ago, public-safety leaders in the area said they would be willing to pay a subscription fee for access to a dedicated 700 MHz Band 14 LTE network that was $5 per month more than the price they could get from commercial carriers.
When the city planned the network, officials expected that commercial carriers would charge $50 per month for an LTE subscription, so Charlotte based its operational business model on a $55-per-month subscription fee, Robinson said. However, carriers today are offering government customers unlimited LTE data plans for $35 per month, meaning that Charlotte would only be able to charge subscribers $40 per month, based on a $5 premium.
To make up for the lower revenue, the city of Charlotte would need another 1,600 subscribers than were included in its plan, Robinson said.
“When you’re talking about a single-county deployment, 1,600 subscribers is a lot of people,” Robinson said.
Because public-safety entities are not required to subscribe to FirstNet, the impact of commercial offerings is going to be felt throughout the country, Robinson said.
“That’s not going to be Chuck Robinson’s or Charlotte’s problem,” he said. “It’s a FirstNet problem, because local government is always going to have to look at their costs.”
This is especially true today, when many local and state governments are under severe budgetary pressure, meaning that some agencies will have to choose between using funds for technology designed to increase productivity, or using them to maintain staffing levels.
“They’re making decisions between technology and cops on the street,” Robinson said. “That’s a tough, tough decision.”
Barry Fraser, general manager of the Bay Area Regional Interoperable Communications Systems Authority (BayRICS)—the jurisdiction working to build a public-safety LTE network in the San Francisco Bay area with Motorola Solutions, which was awarded the BTOP grant—said some of the key lessons learned by BayRICS is to establish a governance structure before doing anything else—and to operate with transparency.
Meanwhile, one of the key questions concerns who will determine which entities will get bandwidth when capacity becomes an issue, such as during the response to a large incident, Fraser said.
“Who’s going to manage these networks?” Fraser said. “Is it going to be best done at the local, regional, state or national level?
“Everyone agrees that local is going to be the best [option]. But in an urban area like ours, we believe a regional approach might be the most efficient way to manage this network, so we’re not competing among cities and counties.”
Vicki Helfrich, executive officer for the Mississippi Wireless Communications Commission that is overseeing the public-safety LTE project in that state, said that education of stakeholders in the network is important and should be viewed as an ongoing process—a fact that became clear during a recent discussion with the state legislature about the merits of a Mississippi plan to deploy new LMR and LTE networks.
“It got so confusing to them that the question came up multiple times, ‘Well, we don’t understand why you need this, when there is a system in place,’” Helfrich said. “You have to explain the benefits of priority [access] that is provided to public safety and why public safety needs it.
“We even got back to the point where they said, ‘We’re not sure why you need a radio system, because can’t you just use your cell phone?’ You’ve got to be prepared to answer those questions and make sure they understand what mission-critical voice is and why public safety needs the data and the priority.”
Todd Early—deputy assistant director and statewide communications interoperability coordinator for the Texas Department of Public Safety, which is helping Harris County, Texas, with spectrum issues associated with the only public-safety LTE network that is operational in the United States—said that he believes public-private partnerships will play a key role in the deployment of the FirstNet network.
“When you look at this entire network nationwide, there’s no doubt there has to be public-private partnerships and leveraging of the existing infrastructure that’s out there.”