FirstNet is Almost Here

A united public safety community achieved a great success this past February with enactment of the public safety broadband legislation.  In all significant respects, public safety received the spectrum, funding, and nationwide governance structure it lobbied for and which all agreed were essential to success.  With the reallocation of the D Block for public safety broadband, public safety has the spectrum capacity it needs to help address large-scale emergencies, and to foster the public/private partnerships essential for network deployment and sustainment.  As for the funding piece – $7 Billion – as I’ve said before, $7 billion is a LOT of money but also not a lot of money, meaning it is a terrific win for public safety but expectations must be kept in check.

So that leaves us with the nationwide governance piece, which in many ways is the most important key to success.  Let’s recall why public safety, which historically has preferred state and local governance models (a bit of an understatement), pressed so hard for a nationwide body.  Put simply, it’s because we know from decades of experience that absent a nationwide approach, many factors conspire to create the certainly dependable but highly expensive, balkanized, and incompatible communications systems we have today and that regrettably cost lives due to the lack of interoperability.  With the turn of events since 9/11, followed by other disasters and the continuing threats that face our country, as well as the opportunity for a “fresh start” with new spectrum and new broadband technology, leaders in public safety, and federal, state and local government, recognized the importance of a nationwide governance model.

Congress agreed in bipartisan fashion and created the First Responder Network Authority or “FirstNet.”  Again, the statutory construction of FirstNet is significantly consistent with public safety’s expressed views, especially the inclusion of representatives of state and local governmental and public safety entities on the board.  Which gets me (finally) to the point of the title to this piece – FirstNet is Almost Here. 

With the legislation being enacted in February, naturally there needed to be a lag time before FirstNet is created.  The legislation provided for a 180-day timeframe (i.e. by August 20th) to stand up FirstNet, and the dedicated staff at NTIA are certainly working diligently to meet this deadline. 

So it’s early in August and we are in this vacuum of time where FirstNet is granted expansive authorities and responsibilities to achieve this exciting, transformational network, but doesn’t yet exist.

While we’re waiting, it’s a good time to remind ourselves of all of the reasons why a nationwide governance approach, and a national network architecture, are not only mandated in the new legislation, but so essential to the future of public safety communications.

We will vastly improve upon the way public safety networks have been deployed in the past.

  • FirstNet will ensure a sustainable network design that includes maintenance and coordinated upgrades.
  • FirstNet will act swiftly and avoid the multitude and variety of state and local procurement and approval processes.
  • FirstNet will leverage the entire public safety community in its bargaining position with private partners, and in purchase of network and device equipment, and thereby achieve national level economies of scale while fostering a competitive and diverse vendor base.
  • FirstNet will ensure a nationwide level of interoperability – so important for mutual aid and truly a matter of homeland security when we face a next natural or manmade disaster.
  • FirstNet will be responsible for ensuring as secure a network as possible – especially vital due to the public safety nature of this network and increasing cyber-related threats.

State and local governments and public safety agencies will achieve many benefits.

  • State and local representatives will have significant voting power and real-time, direct representation on the FirstNet Board.
  • The planning grant program designed to immediately follow the creation of FirstNet will ensure state and local input into FirstNet’s Request for Proposal process – this is the legislation’s baked-in way to prioritize and ensure that state and local input is not just considered but incorporated into the network deployment.
  • A new highly advanced, game-changing technology – LTE – is suited to an efficient, national network architecture and yet by its nature enables local customization (prioritization, access).
  • Significant costs savings – state and local agencies will not need to expend increasingly limited funds to finance and maintain multiple, separate network builds and ongoing upgrades, purchase unique and very costly handsets, and pay for supplemental commercial wireless services.

While we await FirstNet’s arrival, and thereafter, all resources should be directed at ensuring FirstNet’s success, because FirstNet’s success means success for all stakeholders – including federal, state, and local government agencies; federal, state and local first responders; private partners such as wireless service providers and utilities; infrastructure, device, and application vendors; experts and consultants; and of course the general public.  Importantly, ensuring success for FirstNet is not inconsistent with those pursuing early network deployments.  FirstNet success is success for all, no matter the outcome of early network builds.

What is not consistent with ensuring the success of FirstNet are premature calls for “opt-out.”  While electing to opt-out might eventually be a viable proposition for some states, let’s go back to my previous proposition.  It’s in everyone’s best interests, including the safety and security of the public, for FirstNet to succeed.  If you’re a state with designs on eventually opting out, focusing now on FirstNet’s success will end up helping your own cause down the road.  At this point in time, focus especially on how to provide the most robust consultation possible with FirstNet to ensure that FirstNet develops its plans with each state’s voice and needs in mind. 

Only FirstNet will ensure the deployment of the “core” network elements as required under the legislation, including those that should be centralized and not constructed in every state, and only FirstNet will achieve economies of scale in equipment and device costs that all agencies will benefit from.  But more fundamentally, under the law, opt-out is not a process that can even be entertained until after FirstNet receives the essential state and local planning input, develops a national network architecture, issues Requests for Proposals, selects vendors and network designs, and proposes such plans to the country.  Only then may states pursue the opt-out option which, by the way, is pretty rigorous under the legislation because the stakes are so high.

FirstNet is Almost Here.  No doubt it has a daunting task, tackling a national problem that has bedeviled policy makers and first responders for decades, and one which no state, region, or local jurisdiction has been able to solve.  But what we do know is that we must establish an advanced, nationwide public safety broadband network, as efficiently and effectively as possible.  And while the task is huge, it is one that FirstNet is designed to singularly focus upon, and for which the law empowers FirstNet with the requisite duties and responsibilities.  If we bring to bear the same energy and unity that achieved initial passage, which was really quite remarkable and unprecedented, to helping FirstNet help federal, state and local public safety entities, we will no doubt achieve all of the goals we fought for in the first place.