FirstNet interoperability responsibilities, FCC authority debated in proceeding
Multiple commenters have asked the FCC to require that the FirstNet public-safety system be interoperable with LMR and commercial LTE networks, but officials representing the FirstNet Authority and FirstNet contractor AT&T question both the practicality of the idea and whether the FCC has jurisdiction in the matter.
These opinions were shared during an FCC proceeding about FirstNet interoperability that closed last Friday. The FCC initiated the proceeding on Sept. 11 at the request of the Boulder Regional Emergency Telephone Service Authority (BRETSA), which is seeking an FCC ruling that declares that “interoperability is a fundamental responsibility of FirstNet and that FirstNet is supported at all levels including network, services, applications, and devices.”
In particular, BRETSA expressed concern that FirstNet representatives have indicated that only FirstNet subscribers would be able to experience the full capabilities of the nationwide public-safety broadband network (NPSBN), while subscribers to other broadband wireless systems would not.
“Suggesting that interoperability with non-FirstNet users may be limited to P25 systems … suggests that FirstNet may become just another silo,” according to the FCC’s public notice. “We do not believe Congress intended to award frequencies to FirstNet to enable it to become yet another silo leveraging market share on limited interoperability.”
In its filing, BRETSA asked the FCC to make the FirstNet Authority responsible for “full interoperability” and to clarify what other network operators—LMR licensees and other commercial broadband providers—must do to make its interoperability vision a reality. This proposed interoperability would require roaming and prioritization to be recognized by carriers, and it would make the FCC available to resolve disputes regarding interoperability, roaming and prioritization.
But filings by the FirstNet Authority and AT&T—the FirstNet Authority’s contractor to build the nationwide public-safety broadband network (NPSBN)—noted that the FCC does not have statutory jurisdiction on the interoperability matter.
In the law that established the FirstNet Authority as an independent authority within the National Information and Telecommunications Administration (NTIA), Congress made the FCC responsible for (1) convening a board to determine minimum interoperability standards in 2012, and (2) evaluating whether the alternative LTE radio-access-network (RAN) plans of prospective opt-out states or territories would interoperate with the FirstNet system.
The FCC’s Interoperability Board submitted its report in the spring of 2012, and no states or territories chose to pursue the opt-opt alternative, so FCC evaluation of proposals was not needed. Given the absence of opt-out states, the FCC interoperability standards are no longer applicable, so “any further comments, request or petitions are moot,” according to the FirstNet Authority filing.
“Stated plainly, the interoperability mandate of the 2012 Act required that the NPSBN operate as a single network by requiring all the RANs built under the FirstNet program public-private arrangement (“opt-in”) be interoperable with the RANs built by any States or territories that opted out of the FirstNet-proposed deployment,” according to the FirstNet Authority filing.
“Because all states and territories decided to opt-in to the FirstNet Authority-proposed network deployment for their state or territory, the FirstNet Authority has established a single, interoperable nationwide network, as required under the 2012 Act—without the need for any interconnection of separate state RANs—which ensures that NPSBN users from different jurisdiction, agencies and across levels of government have seamless operable communications.”
AT&T’s filing states that Congress mandated that NPSN be based on a “single, national network architecture” and that deviating from this approach could have negative consequences.
“The ‘full interoperability’ that BRETSA seemingly envisions would lead to the very patchwork of separate networks that Congress sought to rectify in establishing the First Responder Network Authority and creating the NPSBN,” according to the AT&T filing.
“If third-party carriers were permitted essentially the same access to the NPSBN as FirstNet subscribers, the network would lack a ‘single, national network architecture.’ Instead, the NPSBN would become merely one island in a sea of disparate networks that would undermine the ability of first responders to communicate—the very result Congress sought to avoid.”
BRETSA’s interoperability proposal also is “unworkable from a technical standpoint,” according to AT&T. Not only would quality-of-service capabilities between network operators have to be harmonized—“a challenging, if not impossible, exercise”—but doing so could jeopardize the FirstNet system’s security.
“Unless third-party commercial networks seeking to interoperate with or roam on the NPSBN implement authentication measures and the same stringent risk, threat, and vulnerability protections as the NPSBN, they would expose the NPSBN to cyberattacks and network degradation,” AT&T says in its filing. “In order to protect the NPSBN, comprehensive testing of all devices and applications on third-party commercial networks seeking to interoperate with and roam on the NPSBN also would be required.
“Even if these measures were implemented, the NPSBN would remain at increased risk if fully accessible by third-party commercial networks—a risk the FCC’s Technical Advisory Board for First Responder Interoperability warned ‘could undermine’ network security.”
In its filing, Verizon disagrees with these positions on several levels.
Addressing the jurisdictional question, Verizon’s filing states that the FCC has the authority to rule on the interoperability issue, based on the fact that it is the agency that regulates the FirstNet Authority’s license to 700 MHz Band 14 spectrum. Verizon also disputed AT&T’s interpretation of “interoperability” required by Congress in the 2012 law.
“According to AT&T, the term means ‘interoperable across and within the [NPSBN], meaning that any user on the NPSBN has full interoperability with every other user of the network,’” according to the Verizon filing. “But if that is what Congress intended, it could have simply required that FirstNet build a ‘single network;’ there would be no need for ‘interoperable’ as a modifier.”
Verizon’s filing challenges the notion that the FirstNet system cannot interoperate with commercial networks by noting that such interoperability already exists with AT&T’s commercial network.
Regarding concerns expressed by the FirstNet Authority that BRETSA’s interoperability proposal would give competitors “access to the unique applications and services that will be developed for the NPSBN,” Verizon states it does not believe this is a problem.
“This is hyperbole,” Verizon’s filing states. “Full interoperability would simply allow seamless communication and priority/preemption capabilities for voice, video and data. FirstNet would remain free to offer proprietary applications and services to its users through a variety of logical and physical means.”
As for security of the FirstNet system, Verizon’s filing states, “Verizon agrees with AT&T that security is critical, and standards-based deployment (a component of full interoperability) and good faith negotiations between service providers will address that need.”
Harlin McEwen, a former chairman of the FirstNet Authority’s Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC), expressed support for FirstNet’s single-nationwide network approach—“not a network of networks, as suggested by some”—and emphasized the importance of security to first responders using FirstNet.
“The security of the FirstNet/NPSBN must be protected,” McEwen states in his filing. “There is a reason that operators of commercial networks in the CMRS have not connected their networks. Sure, there are competitive reasons, but the primary reason is that it poses severe security risks.
“In today’s environment we see networks being hacked and compromised on a daily basis and the risk increases significantly when networks are interconnected. All efforts must be made to protect the FirstNet/NPSBN from disruptive intrusions.”
These sentiments were echoed in a joint filing by five influential public-safety representatives—Al Gillespie, Jeff Johnson, Charles Dowd, Richard Mirgon and Ray Flynn—who noted that the proposed BRETSA interoperability requirements could limit the development capabilities within the FirstNet ecosystem.
“History shows that more networks—a network-of-networks approach—create more cost and allow for the creation of proprietary technology, because there is no oversight on the technology used within a single network,” according to the joint filing. “FirstNet and its contracted network provider AT&T are legally obligated to build, maintain, and provide public safety grade services to the nation’s first responders. The importance of that reality cannot be overstated. No other corporate entity shares in that responsibility.
“Compelling FirstNet to interoperate with commercial carriers would force FirstNet to develop to the lowest common denominator of the weakest link of any carrier. The belief by some that introducing multiple wireless
providers into a public-safety solution as a way of creating redundancy and reliability has been repeatedly debunked, as was demonstrated during emergencies like hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.”
But a filing from The Digital Decision—a consulting firm founded by Robert LeGrande, former CTO for the District of Columbia—urged the FCC to approve the BRETSA petition, noting that a single-network approach does not address the immediate communications needs of public-safety agencies that commonly use broadband providers other than FirstNet at incident scenes.
“Congress, and indeed the public-safety community, did not work to establish FirstNet to provide limited interoperability for public safety,” according to The Digital Decision filing. “It is worth noting that FirstNet and AT&T do not even serve the majority of public safety users today.
“Consequently, limiting FirstNet’s customers to interoperability only with other FirstNet customers would severely hinder their communications and undermine the mission of emergency responders. Given that public-safety agencies use different commercial broadband networks for their communications needs, it is essential that FirstNet support full interoperability with all networks used by public safety.”