FirstNet Authority outlines roadmap targets for future system reinvestment
FirstNet Authority board members are expected to decide this fall how as much as $78 million will be earmarked to help improve the capabilities of the FirstNet public-safety LTE network being built by AT&T, according to statements made about the network roadmap last week.
During its March meeting, the FirstNet Authority board approved principles that it will follow when determining how to reinvest an estimated $15 billion into the nationwide public-safety broadband network (NPSBN) during the 25-year agreement with AT&T, which was contracted in 2017 to build and maintain the system. No financial commitments were identified by the board last week, but officials expressed an intent to make such decisions during the September board meeting.
Among the key goals expressed by staff and board members is to ensure that FirstNet is able to provide latest-generation services to first-responder subscribers. Today, that means preparing the network to transition to 5G technology, which promises to deliver faster data speeds, greater capacity and lower latency than is possible on a 4G LTE network.
“FirstNet is going to be ready for 5G. We’re going to be able to offer 5G services to public safety,” Ed Parkinson, the FirstNet Authority’s executive director of external affairs, said during last week’s board meeting in Indianapolis. “Just as FirstNet has been the leading edge of technology and offering the best services to public safety in the 4G LTE environment, FirstNet will be at the cutting edge of 5G.”
“We’re going to be able to provide those type of services and be at the forefront for public safety to ensure the capabilities that these evolving technologies will be able to provide. FirstNet will be at the forefront of that, too.”
FirstNet Authority Chairman Ed Horowitz noted that it is unclear exactly how 5G technology will be deployed in the commercial space but upgrading FirstNet’s physically separate core will be needed.
“5G has a lot of different routes it might take, but the core has got to be ready,” Horowitz said during the board meeting. “It’s not like we’re going to decide where 5G is going. We’re going to be able to capitalize on what we think are the best ideas and build to it.”
FirstNet Authority staff members outlined the six domain areas that the network roadmap will target for reinvestment, based largely on input from first responders that was gathered from a survey and the more than 15,000 public-safety representatives participating in more than 600 engagements. Topping that list is improving FirstNet coverage and capacity—a topic cited by 82% of public-safety personnel engaged during the outreach process.
“We need to make sure that it is available, when and where public safety needs it. That could mean a lot of different things,” Jeremy Zollo, executive director of the FirstNet Authority’s enterprise strategy, said during the board meeting. “It’s not just the physical RAN that is built out, deployed and producing access to the network through Band 14. These are the deployable elements that are out there and other unique platforms that we have to start looking into to help public safety have access and additional capacity and coverage, when and where they need it.”
FirstNet Authority CTO Jeff Bratcher echoed this sentiment, describing coverage enhancement as a “key foundational element” and—with an upgrade of the network core—a focus area that is a prime candidate for receiving some funding during this first year of the reinvestment program.
In addition to upgrading the network core and enhancing FirstNet coverage, the other four domains that are expected to be addressed in the system roadmap are:
- Situational awareness,
- Voice communications,
- Secure information exchange, and
- User experience
In terms of voice communications, Parkinson expressed hope that mission-critical-push-to-talk (MCPTT) services will be coming “sooner rather than later” and reiterated the need to provide FirstNet subscribers with a choice of vendors delivering the service. Making MCPTT available to public safety is a “potential game-changer,” he said.
FirstNet Authority board member Neil Cox—chairman of the Technology Committee—agreed, projecting that FirstNet MCPTT offerings could have a similar impact as cellular phones had on the pay-phone industry decades ago.
“I remember, in 1986, I took a picture of a pay phone to the board of directors of [Baby Bell telephony provider] Ameritech—which I was an officer of—and the pay phone had a sign [that said], ‘You wouldn’t be standing here, if you had a cellular phone.’ That was in 1986,” Cox said. “It took 14 years to get out of that technology. But, at one point, it became of no value at all—we gave the whole pay-phone division away to somebody that would take it.
“So, when I hear ‘mission-critical push to talk,’ I always say in my own voice, ‘replacement,’ at the end. I always say the word ‘replacement,’ because I still don’t know if—20 years from now—people want to be pushing buttons like they did since 1933. There are other technologies that can do the same things, as technologies evolve.”
The money to fund reinvestment initiatives will come from AT&T. Under the FirstNet arrangement, AT&T gains access to the 20 MHz of Band 14 spectrum licensed to the FirstNet Authority and has the potential to receive $6.5 billion by executing all network-deployment milestones in a timely manner.
In addition to building and maintaining the system, AT&T must make payments to the FirstNet Authority that total more than $18 billion during the 25-year contract period.
This arrangement is designed to ensure that the FirstNet Authority will remain financial sustainable throughout the life of the contract, which was awarded to AT&T in March 2017. AT&T has told financial analysts that it expects about $3 billion of these AT&T payments will fund the FirstNet Authority’s operations during the 25-year contract period and that AT&T would receive the other $15 billion, although that is not guaranteed by law.
During last week’s meeting, FirstNet Authority board members approved a resolution stating that any network-reinvestment decisions will be made solely by a vote of the board.
Outside of the network-roadmap discussions, other notable items on the board agenda included:
- An update on the search for a FirstNet Authority CEO. Parkinson’s stint as acting CEO expired recently, but he will continue to handle day-to-day operational matters until a new CEO is named, according to Horowitz. Bratcher will be responsible for budget items and executive leadership.
- For the sixth consecutive year, the FirstNet Authority received a “clean” audit from independent auditors, according to FirstNet Authority CFO Kim Farington.
- Approval of a resolution recognizing the service of board member Teri Takai. The last of the original FirstNet Authority board members appointed in 2012 who is still on the board, Takai will see her seven-year tenure expire when a replacement is named during the next few months. Takai expressed pride in the progress of FirstNet and described her time on the board as “one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.”