Public safety reconsiders who should use its broadband network
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Partnerships between utilities and traditional public-safety agencies are not unique. In the LMR arena, such agreements exist in states like Nevada and Nebraska. In preparation for the FirstNet planning process, representatives in these states and several others have initiated talks with utilities about possible partnerships associated with the FirstNet LTE network.
To help such efforts, officials with the Utilities Telecom Council (UTC) have spent much of the last year traveling the country to educate utilities about the potential FirstNet opportunity and to support their dialogs with states and territories.
"[FirstNet is] looking at integrating public-safety requirements and assets into this network," Klaus Bender, UTC’s director of engineering. "At the same time, utilities are looking to summarize their assets that might be brought to the table. So there’s a similar effort [ensuing] on the utility side."
Although there appears to be interest from both utilities and traditional public safety to establish a partnership dialog, there remain concerns that any agreements reached could vary so much between the states that the deals may not fit into the nationwide FirstNet framework. Not only are there issues that can differ between private utilities and publicly-owned utilities, there are inevitable differences related to inconsistent assets and geographical needs.
When asked about the possibility of all utilities agreeing to a base template agreement that would fit into a nationwide FirstNet framework, many question whether it is possible.
"Yeah, and we’ll go after world peace next," one official close to negotiations with a utility said sarcastically.
One key point in any negotiation with utilities is priority access for a handful of key applications. On a normal day, utilities would expect to use considerable excess capacity, but that usage can be reduced dramatically during an emergency, when applications that are not particularly time sensitive — for example, automated meter reading — can be turned off to make more bandwidth available to public safety.
However, certain applications that are critical to letting utilities know whether their systems are functioning properly cannot be turned off at any time — if there is a chance that would occur, utilities would have little incentive to invest in the FirstNet network. Fortunately, these most-critical applications require relatively small amounts of bandwidth, according to Madden.
If such issues can be negotiated successfully, a potential partnership with utilities on the FirstNet broadband network could be very beneficial to both utilities and public-safety users. In addition, such a partnership would be appropriate, given the important roles each sector plays in responding to emergencies, UTC’s Bender said.
"Utilities feel that critical infrastructure, in certain instances, are also first responders," he said. "We are at the scene often as quicky—or even before—the police or fire."