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Operations

How FirstNet Will Broaden Communications

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Step by step, the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) is slogging its way to creating a nationwide public safety broadband network (NPSBN) in the 700MHz band. “Sometimes it feels like things are moving at light speed,” says Kevin McGinnis, FirstNet board member, paramedic and chief of Maine’s North East Mobile Health Services. “Other times, it’s like a long, slow march.”

Since FirstNet was created as an independent authority by Congress in 2012, its staff has been working toward making the 700MHz NPSBN a reality. With $7 billion in federal money allocated to the project, the stakes are high: The wireless broadband network FirstNet is charged with creating is intended to connect police, fire, EMS and other emergency personnel through mobile devices.

“Seven billion dollars is a good start, but when you appreciate just how much has to be done to bring this connectivity to first responders in all 50 states, it is not enough,” says McGinnis. “That’s how colossal a task this really is.”

So far, FirstNet has conducted two rounds of public input into how its enabling legislation—the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012—should be interpreted in realizing the NPSBN, “including public safety customer, operational and funding considerations related to states or territories assuming responsibility for radio access network (RAN) deployment,” according to a FirstNet March 9, 2015 news release.

At the operational level, “we are in the middle of two phases simultaneously,” McGinnis says. “First we are talking with stakeholders to figure out how the connectivity will be delivered between the national network and my smartphone in the ambulance.” This has to be worked out on a state-by-state basis, which is why the FirstNet crew is on the road making presentations to state officials. (So far they have done 31.)
“Second, we need to acquire partners to help us build out the network,” says McGinnis. “To this end, we are drafting up an request for proposal (RFP) to attract partners, which we hope to issue by the end of the year.”

For commercial carriers, partnering with FirstNet could give them access to the NPSBN’s bandwidth during off-peak periods. However, the fact that first responders would have priority carriage on this network’s traffic could deter such carriers from taking part. Another issue could be that of control: Accustomed to running their own networks as they see fit, commercial carriers may not want to play second fiddle to FirstNet’s authority.

On the flip side, FirstNet’s NPSBN could provide welcome excess bandwidth for commercial carriers during peak times, when their networks are running at full capacity. How much they value this relief will depend on the growth of commercial wireless network traffic, and the carriers’ ability to do more with what they have as faster, more efficient forms of wireless transmission—from today’s 4G@100Mbps to 5G@10Gbps in 2020—are implemented in their networks.

Finding deep-pocketed private partners is of fundamental importance to FirstNet’s future operations. “We are looking at a network whose client base will number in the single-digit millions, as opposed to 100 million on a commercial carrier’s network,” McGinnis says. “On their own, these are not enough users to keep the NPSBN operating and maintained: We need to earn income on the network to offset its costs.”

This brings up two more issues facing FirstNet: How much to charge for the service to first responder agencies, and determining who is authorized to access the network on a first responder basis.
“We can’t afford to charge too much and deter smaller agencies from using the NPSBN; that would undercut the entire purpose of creating a national broadband network for first responders,” says McGinnis. “On the other hand, we cannot afford to undervalue the network, because it has to be paid for.”

As for who gets to access the NPSBN? It is natural to assume that EMS, fire and police personnel will get to use it. “But determining who else gets to log into the NPSBN is no simple question,” McGinnis says. “Should we include electric, gas and water utilities? All local emergency departments and hospitals in general? Social agencies that provide aid to victims during disasters? How do you strike a balance between thorough coverage and the risk of compromising the network’s speed and security by allowing too many users in?”

The scope of these questions and challenges underscore what a titanic task it is to create an integrated national public safety broadband network. And make no mistake: Integrating the country’s urban/rural areas and their various first responder agencies into a single shared network is an unprecedented initiative. Nothing this big has been done before in the history of first responder communications; that’s why the task is so daunting.

Nevertheless, FirstNet is soldiering on with its NPSBN efforts, even though the timetable for launching the network has yet to be finalized. “We will get there,” says McGinnis. “It is not a matter of if, but when.”

James Careless is a freelance writer with extensive experience covering computer technologies.

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