FirstNet’s initial marching orders reveal a great deal about current direction
It’s been a little more than a year since the 15-member FirstNet board was announced, and there has not been a shortage of debate about the organization during this time. Some have argued that the board has moved too quickly; others claim that the board is dragging its feet. Amid all of this, board member Paul Fitzgerald levied allegations in April that decisions were being made without transparency and in an environment where conflicts of interest exist.
To date, FirstNet has not decided on a network architecture or a business model, although board members, staff and consultants certainly have provided numerous hints on some of the options being contemplated. Within the industry, many have assumed that the options being considered were generated solely by the FirstNet board and were a reflection of the various board members’ backgrounds, be it public safety, commercial wireless or something else.
But it turns out that many big-picture principles were in place before the FirstNet board convened, according to FirstNet Chairman Sam Ginn. During a presentation at the recent Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) conference, Ginn revealed the marching orders given to FirstNet board members slightly less than a year ago by then-Acting Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank.
“She said, ‘I want to lay out your challenge. I want you to build out a nationwide network. I want you to engineer it. I want you to build it, I want you to maintain it, and I don’t want it to cost the taxpayers any money,’” Ginn said.
Of course, FirstNet is earmarked to receive $7 billion from spectrum-auction proceeds, which many would argue is a taxpayer resource, but that’s not the point, in my opinion. Rather, I believe that the message from Blank is that FirstNet board members need to build the network based on the assets provided by law—the $7 billion and the 20 MHz of prime 700 MHz spectrum—and not rely on any subsequent financial aid from the federal government.
No one believes that $7 billion will be enough to deploy a nationwide broadband network for first responders, so Blank told the new FirstNet board members that “we would expect that you will arbitrage that spectrum to generate additional funds to build this network,” Ginn said.
Most observers long have believed that sharing network capacity with non-public-safety entities would have to be part of the equation to make the FirstNet system economically viable, but it is interesting to learn that this was an expectation—not just an option—from the very beginning, according to Ginn.
Other expectations shared during this initial meeting included some predictable messages—for instance, that the network should enable interoperability and use LTE technology, and that government processes can be slower and more complicated than those in the private sector. Blank also said the FirstNet system also needs to include an application engine that encourages innovations, as well as feature reliability and security that is “way beyond” that offered by commercial networks, Ginn said.
One message to the FirstNet board members may raise a few eyebrows. Not only should the FirstNet system provide in-building coverage, but Blank said it also should provide in-building location information that allows fire units to locate firefighters within buildings, according to Ginn.
When considered together, these marching orders represent a task list that is even more daunting than I thought, especially when you consider that they were given to a group of people that—for the most part—did not know one another a year ago.
There is a long way to go, and FirstNet really is just getting started in earnest, with full-time staff members only recently being hired. However, if FirstNet can accomplish these goals communicated by Blank last year, it promises to revolutionize the way first responders operate.