FirstNet takes big steps, but significant decisions still remain
This is not a wedding. No one will be walking down an aisle, and there’s no reason for anyone to cry yet. However, last week’s release of the text for FirstNet’s comprehensive request for information (RFI) and preliminary legal interpretations of some unclear areas of its enabling legislation does bring to mind one phrase that is familiar during matrimonial ceremonies:
“Speak now, or forever hold your peace.”
Actually, it’s not quite that dramatic, but the message from FirstNet officials is clear: They want to hear from any interested parties—everyone from vendors to public-safety personnel to citizens on the street—on a variety of topics about the much-anticipated nationwide public-safety broadband system, including what it should look like, whom it should serve, and how to pay for both the initial deployment of the network and future upgrades.
And those wanting to have input into the big-picture view for FirstNet should participate in these two proceedings. FirstNet officials plan to use this input to release a draft RFP during the first quarter of 2015. Once the RFP process begins, FirstNet personnel will be limited in their interactions with vendors to comply with federal guidelines that are designed to ensure the integrity of the procurement process.
An initial review of the comprehensive RFI and legal interpretations left a couple of key impressions on me that form a classic good news/bad news scenario.
The good news is that FirstNet appears to be keeping its word. Contrary to many industry rumors that key network and policy decisions already had been made in secret, the documents show virtually no evidence of preconceived notions and seem to leave room for just about any potential technical or business-model approach that can be imagined.
The bad news is that the documents seem to be so open-ended that they emphasize the fact that very few meaningful decisions about the FirstNet system have been made. More than a few sources have asked, “What have they [FirstNet officials] been doing for the past two years?”
Primarily, FirstNet has been gathering market data and hiring staff during this time, which helped lead to these documents. Thanks in large part to this legwork, the questions being asked in the two proceedings generally seem to be the right ones.
There is some sentiment that many of the questions being asked in these two proceedings should have been addressed at least a year ago, and that position is understandable. But the timing is actually working out quite nicely, particularly from a technology standpoint. LTE quickly has become a mature technology, commercial voice over LTE is a reality, carrier aggregation of multiple bands is being utilized, and FirstNet officials last week said that tests of priority and preemption—a must for public safety—have gone well.
After FirstNet combs through the responses on the two proceedings, the board will have to begin to make some hard decisions regarding the network design and business model to support the massive project—a reality that was noted by Chairwoman Sue Swenson.
“It is going to start to get down to some of the real critical things we’ve all been talking about,” Swenson said during the FirstNet board meeting last week. “But we have to make the decisions, or we’re not going to be able to move forward.”
Swenson is absolutely right. The FirstNet board—with five new members attending their first meetings last week—has a lot to consider, and the upcoming big-picture decisions will have a lot to do with the ultimate success or failure of the nationwide broadband network for first responders. Hopefully, the board will get the input it needs from these proceedings to make the right choices, because there likely will be only one opportunity to get this critical project right.