UC’s top stories of 2013 (Part 1)
There was no shortage of important stories in 2013. Here are five that we think were among the most interesting and notable. On Thursday, we’ll present five more.
FirstNet board member Paul Fitzgerald blasts colleagues—Fitzgerald, the sheriff of Story County, Iowa, alleged in April that fellow board members acted without adequate transparency, dissed the Public Safety Advisory Committee, and may have acted unethically in procurement activities. If that wasn’t enough, a legal battle ensued between Story County and the U.S. Department of Justice whether FirstNet-related e-mails sent and received by Fitzgerald using his work account could be released to the public. It’s a mess that still hasn’t been fully resolved. Regardless of the outcome, the situation has created a big problem for FirstNet, which needs to engender trust if it expects to get local and regional agencies to eventually join its nationwide broadband network for first responders.
Morgan O’Brien wants to reinvent private LMR—The man who dreamed up the idea for a nationwide public-safety broadband communications network—a notion that ultimately begat FirstNet—has a new fantastical notion, which is to transition private radio services from narrowband to broadband technology. This would be done by leveraging a “spectrum commons” strategy. Specifically, O’Brien suggests that the enterprise wireless sector form a consortium that would seek to repurpose the spectrum the sector already possesses—in part, by sharing spectrum and selling excess capacity. After watching him build Nextel Communications—by buying up myriad 800 MHz SMR licenses that were being used for fleet dispatch and were thought to have very limited value—and then seeing his public-safety broadband idea take root, we’ve learned never to dismiss anything that O’Brien conjures.
Text-to-911 momentum—At the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) conference in June, David Turetsky, chief of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, exhorted the public-safety sector to “do whatever it takes to make text to 911 a reality.” His voice was joined by that of Marlee Matlin, the Oscar-winning actress and leading advocate for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. It appears as if their call is being heeded, as the number of text-to-911 trials and full implementations continued to grow this year. Meanwhile, each the four major nationwide wireless carriers—AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon—started to provide bounc- back messages to 911 texters in areas where the service isn’t available, well ahead of the June 30, 2013, deadline. In addition, all appear to be on track to roll out text-to-911 service nationwide by the May 15, 2014, deadline brokered by NENA and the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO). Hopefully, the 911 sector will keep the momentum going regarding this life-saving capability next year.
Lack of early FirstNet deployments—In February, FirstNet board members opened negotiations for spectrum-lease agreements with seven entities that were awarded federal grants to fund public-safety LTE deployments as part of the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP). Soon after, similar negotiations were initiated with the State of Texas—on behalf of Harris County, Texas, where the lone public-safety LTE network operates. But negotiations took much longer than expected after encouraging initial signs, dashing hopes for any of the BTOP recipients to have their planned networks operating during 2013. By the end of the year, four BTOP entities signed agreements with FirstNet that will let them proceed with public-safety LTE deployments, while negotiations continued with Texas. Three BTOP recipients that made the most progress toward public-safety LTE deployments—the city of Charlotte, N.C., the state of Mississippi and Motorola Solutions, on behalf of the San Francisco Bay area—did not reach an agreement with FirstNet.
Tower safety takes a tumble—This year will go down as one of the worst for fatalities in the tower sector. Though the number of fatalities could be a statistical aberration, the more likely cause is the fact that tower work associated with LTE deployments was booming at a time when a shortage of qualified workers exists. Fortunately, the sector—led by the National Association of Tower Erectors (NATE)—is taking proactive steps to address the problem. For instance, NATE launched the NATE Exchange this year, which lists a variety of training programs that are compliant with the association’s climber fall-protection training standards. Also, NATE convened a tower-safety summit in October that brought tower owners and operators, as well as construction contractors to discuss tower safety issues and best practices. The summit spawned a task force that will study whether pre-hiring practices and training can be standardized across the sector, and how to otherwise beef up the ranks of qualified tower climbers.