Where will FirstNet be next 9/11?
Where will FirstNet be next 9/11?
Friday marked the 14th anniversary of the tragic events of 9/11, when terrorists transformed the iconic twin towers of the World Trade Center into rubble, as well as attacking the Pentagon. Not only did the terrorist attacks result in a massive loss of life and property, but they forced everyone in the United States to rethink the way we function.
For the first time since the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor—and for the first time in centuries in the continental United States—U.S. citizens were directly impacted by a large-scale attack perpetrated by people from a foreign land. No longer was terrorism something that we just learned about in a TV news clip or a magazine article; suddenly, the threat was very real.
And we were vulnerable.
Not surprisingly, stark changes occurred. Security efforts escalated almost immediately. Attitudes toward civil liberties transformed, with long-held freedoms willingly being compromised in name of greater safety.
Many of the changes were done at the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission. In fact, Congress has taken action on all of the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations, the last being 2012 legislation to establish a nationwide public-safety network that provides interoperability between all first-responder entities known as FirstNet.
During the last three-and-a-half years, FirstNet has been a hot topic in the public-safety community, but many outside the sector have no idea that the initiative even exists.
By this time next year, that promises to change. It may be for the better or it may be for the worse, but there is little doubt that awareness of the FirstNet effort will grow substantially during the next year, at both the state and national levels.
If things go according to the current FirstNet plan, the organization will release its final request for proposal (RFP) by the end of the year, and multiple bidding teams—it is hard to imagine any one company trying to take on massive endeavor alone—present proposals by the middle of the year.
In this scenario, a selection process would be in motion at this time next year, and speakers at 15th-anniversary 9/11 events could applaud the fact that we have a clear path to a nationwide public-safety broadband network (potentially pending the opt-in/opt-out decisions of a few key states and territories, depending on a number of factors).
Of course, things may not go according to plan. Indeed, the prospect that no one will bid on the FirstNet project has been a source of constant speculation, almost from the moment that FirstNet released its draft RFP.
A no-bid scenario would not be new to public safety. In early 2008, the FCC conducted a 700 MHz auction that included a 10 MHz D Block swath, with the winner of that portion of the auction receiving the right to negotiate a deal with the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST)—the licensee of 10 MHz of adjacent spectrum—to build a nationwide network that would give first responders with prioritized access when needed.
Throughout the months of buildup to the auction, a new company called Frontline Wireless—headed by former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt—was outspoken in its interest in the D Block and working with public safety. But Frontline opted not to bid, and no other carrier submitted a qualifying bid. The PSST continued to exist, but it had no money (in fact, it was accumulating debt owed to Cyren Call, headed by Nextel Communications co-founder Morgan O’Brien) and lost momentum.
Could history repeat itself, with no one bidding on FirstNet?
It’s possible, but the circumstances surrounding the FirstNet procurement are very different than those that existed in 2008. At the time of the 700 MHz auction in 2008, the iPhone was still a nascent device, there was uncertainty how people would use mobile data, there was no money on the table, the PSST had no fulltime employees, the proposal was hurriedly pieced together, and LTE technology basically was vaporware. And, of course, the credit markets were beginning to tighten in a cycle that almost resulted in a global economic collapse later in the year.
Today, the mobile-data and LTE ecosystems are mature, equipment costs have dropped dramatically, the value of spectrum has skyrocketed, and the FirstNet deal includes a $6.5 billion payout. FirstNet has not hired as quickly as it would have liked, but it has a substantial fulltime staff that has been developing this proposal for the past couple of years. And we can only hope that the economy will be better than it was in 2008.