FirstNet Authority conducting public-safety outreach to inform reinvestment decisions in nationwide system
COLLEGE STATION, TEXAS—Findings from outreach workshops with first-responder entities during the next several months will be used to help develop the FirstNet Authority’s roadmap that will outline the organization’s plans to invest about $15 billion into the FirstNet system during the next 23 years, according to a FirstNet Authority official.
Last month, the FirstNet Authority board approved four broad principles to guide the organization’s investment decisions. But these FirstNet Authority workshops are designed to provide a better understand public-safety workflows and communications, so the roadmap that is expected to be released later this year can be much more detailed than the guiding principles, according to Chris Algiere, the FirstNet Authority’s director of federal and national programs for public-safety advocacy.
“I think the intent is to have something out there sooner—rather than later—this year and to have enough specificity around it where somebody could pick it up, look at it and kind of understand what we’re looking at and where we’re going,” Algiere said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications during the Winter Institute on the campus of Texas A&M University.
“We don’t want it to be completely nebulous. That doesn’t help anybody; it just raises more questions. We want to have a little specificity to it, so it’s going to be a challenge.”
Algiere also participated in a Winter Institute panel discussion, during which he noted that the FirstNet Authority is not limited to investing only in network infrastructure.
“We’re looking across the board at things now, as long as it’s very closely related and associated with the network,” Algiere said during the panel discussion. “So, apps and any type of special devices [potentially within the scope of FirstNet investment] … We’re looking at it through a pretty broad lens now.”
Under the FirstNet Authority’s contract with AT&T, AT&T is required to make annual payments to the FirstNet Authority that will total about $18 billion over the 25-year deal. Of this total, $2 billion to $3 billion is expected to be used to support the FirstNet Authority’s organizational operations. The rest of this money—more than $15 billion—is slated to be invested into the FirstNet system, as the FirstNet Authority has a statutory requirement to reinvest revenues beyond its operating expenses into the FirstNet system.
Key information in developing the FirstNet Authority investment roadmap is expected to come from a series of public-safety outreach workshops, Algiere said. These outreach workshops are important to the FirstNet Authority, which needs to be able to justify its investments by citing needs identified by public safety, he said.
Thus far, the FirstNet Authority has conducted a handful of “pilot” outreach workshops with cities, a state, a territory and a couple of federal agencies, according to Algiere. The workshops utilize a framework that emphasizes scenario-based workflows and the associated communications needed during the response effort, he said.
“We really want to start out with a baseline of, ‘How do you do that today?’” Algiere said during the interview. “Then, we go back and look at it from another lens: ‘How can broadband be implemented here, if you’re not already using it?’ What are some of the near-term and longer-term things you could do with broadband to help achieve the mission faster, achieve efficiency or provide a piece of information to a responder that you previously have not been able to provide?”
Although each public-safety entity will have its own unique circumstances and practices, the FirstNet Authority plans to organize the various inputs in a consistent framework, so FirstNet Authority officials can make “an apples-to-apples comparison” of information and trends when investments decisions are made, Algiere said.
Of course, these workshops—some are a full day, while others can take multiple days—represent a significant time commitment both for the FirstNet Authority and the public-safety entity, according to Algiere. To date, public-safety entities participating in the workshops have indicated that they also have benefited from the comprehensive perspective used in FirstNet Authority process, he said.
“Especially from an IT group or the comms [communications] side, sometimes it’s hard to explain to management exactly what it is they do, how they do it, and why,” Algiere said. “By putting it into an operational scenario and literally drawing a picture, they’re able to show that to somebody and say, ‘Here are all of the things that are going on.’
“It’s a really good tool to help them explain—up and down, and left and right, within their organization—what they do and how they do it.”
Algiere said the workshop format also can help better inform the public-safety entity about what FirstNet can—and can’t—do for them under different scenarios, including planned events.
“We work very closely with our partners from AT&T and work very closely with the venue in helping them better understand some of the things that would really enhance their experience in the use of broadband during a planned event,” Algiere said.
“Again, those tie into feeding our roadmap—feeding our understanding and knowledge of what’s going on in the public-safety space—and also ensuring that the public-safety organizations that we work with have a very realistic expectation of what the capabilities of the FirstNet network are. It’s not the silver bullet and the answer to every problem that’s out there. We want to make sure that we have a very informed consumer and that we’re able to really help in understanding how to better execute the mission and deliver those services to the general public.”
Not surprisingly, one area that is mentioned often during workshop discussions is coverage, whether it is outdoor—address rural and remote locations, or filling gaps in areas with some existing coverage—or inside buildings or other structures, Algiere said.
“Coverage is definitely one of the things that comes up constantly,” Algiere said during the interview. “At this stage, we have to balance it a little bit, because the buildout is still happening, but it does consistently come up.
“In terms of in-building coverage, what’s a standards-based or consistent way to deliver that? We want to make sure that, when a firefighter goes into this building, it’s the same experience he gets when he goes into this other building. What’s the best way to go about doing that? Those are the types of things we are exploring.”
Even where public safety identifies a specific need, the FirstNet Authority may not prioritize it on the roadmap or dedicate significant funding, if the organization believes the matter can be addressed in other ways, Algiere said. In addition to private-industry developments, some needs could be met by initiatives led by federal agencies like Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR) and the Department of Homeland Security Science & Technology (DHS S&T) Directorate, according to a FirstNet spokesperson.
“The way technology has been advancing, we don’t want to spend money on something that somebody else already finds a solution for,” Algiere said. “So, let’s look at it from a near-term perspective and then longer term.”
Events like the Winter Institute can be very helpful to the FirstNet Authority from this perspective, because officials can see how well existing solutions are working today and get some ideas about potential improvements that could be developed in the future.
“You get a sense from the vendors,” Algiere said. “It’s always interesting to see how that shift has happened. Now, there’s a lot of interest [from vendors] about, ‘How do we offer something that fits what you guys [at FirstNet] are doing?’ That was not always the case, so it’s a little bit of a barometer. We must be doing something right, because we’re getting more vendor interest in how they can partner and how they can get involved.”
The FirstNet Authority’s considerations for both the roadmap and eventual investments will be influenced by factors beyond technical requirements, Algiere said.
“It’s not just purely a technology-solution question,” he said. “It’s about what policy things are in place that would either inhibit or allow you to do other things. So, we’ve got to look at what’s in the technology ecosystem currently—what’s coming in the near term and long term—and, from a governance perspective, what are the public-policy and statutory requirements. Also, we need the roadmap to kind of help drive that and feed it.”
Conducting outreach workshops and developing the investment will keep FirstNet Authority officials very busy during the next several months, Algiere said.
“I think there probably was some trepidation early on that, once the contract was assigned and a partner was in place, AT&T was kind of going to do work, and the feds were going to sit back and let this thing happen for 25 years,” Algiere said. “That’s not our intent at all.
“Our intent is to be very much involved in this through this methodology … We’ll provide oversight on [AT&T’s deployment], but this is more about really about trying to maintain pace with the changes that are occurring in the public-safety space.”