FCC’s Renewal of License Signals Its Faith in FirstNet

By Richard Mirgon

Here is a story most of you may have missed because, on its face, it doesn’t look like much, but
it is significantly important to Public Safety/First Responders. On May 26 th the FCC issued the
renewal of FirstNet’s 700 MHz Band 14 license into at least 2027, which can be viewed here
One key element to understand is that they could have renewed the license without
comment—but they didn’t. They have a message to send clearing up comments made by other
carriers and a few public safety associations with fringe positions.

This being said, the FCC did plant a stake in the ground in the FirstNet license renewal process.
It did so by asserting its jurisdictional right to perform ongoing oversight of the FirstNet
Authority, “as circumstances warrant.” But that is the one cautionary note I found in the FCC’s
FirstNet license renewal — perhaps put there to fend off those people who are critical of the
FCC’s oversight of, or perceived lack thereof. Let’s also understand that oversight is limited as it
only relates to the license. FirstNet is still an independent Authority within NTIA and is
governed by the law passed by Congress.

Anyway, here are some highlights of the FCC’s FirstNet license renewal. Think of this as the first
responder broadband wireless equivalent of your local TV newscast’s daily sports highlights
reel, without the beer commercials. As you will see the comments of the FCC are in direct
quotations from that renewal order.

One issue, question and debate is whether FirstNet must be fully interoperable with other
carriers. The FCC says that FirstNet has met requirements to build and operate an
interoperable nationwide network and here is what they said:

“Some commenters contend that FirstNet is required under the Spectrum Act to make its
NPSBN interoperable with non-FirstNet networks, and that the Commission should impose this
requirement as a license condition. FirstNet responds that the Spectrum Act requires FirstNet’s
own network to support nationwide interoperability but does not mandate interoperability
with other networks. FirstNet also asserts that its network is interoperable with other networks
to the same extent that commercial LTE networks are interoperable with one another.” (This
was a key design preference when we asked Congress for the legislation. A single network is key
because in most cases public safety has shown a “networks of networks design” doesn’t work
and results in significantly increased costs. It also exponentially increases the risk for cyber-
attacks and we have already seen many of those this year on public safety targets).

The FCC goes on to say “We find that FirstNet has satisfied the requirement in Section 1422(a)
to build and operate an “interoperable” nationwide network. The Spectrum Act sought to
ensure that the NPSBN would support interoperable communications by all public safety users
of the network nationwide. Section 1422(a) does not state that the NPSBN must be interoperable with networks other than the NPSBN, and we decline to read such a requirement
into the Act.”

In accomplishing the interoperability with the use of standards, the FCC confirms FirstNet’s
use of common global, industry standards.

In this order, the FCC reviewed this issue of standards. What they said was, “FirstNet states that
the NPSBN is and continues to be built to open, non-proprietary standards, which has allowed
device manufacturers to design equipment that functions on the NPSBN. Further, FirstNet has
established a device approval program to ensure that public safety equipment is capable of
being used by any public safety entity, and ‘to the extent that such capabilities are necessary
and technically and economically reasonable,’ is backward-compatible with existing commercial
networks, through testing and verification reporting. FirstNet also asserts that, “following 3GPP
standards allows users of the NPSBN to make and receive calls, send and receive texts, and use
data for applications with full device interoperability with users on commercial wireless
networks that follow the same international standards.” The FCC confirmed that “FirstNet met
these requirements.”

There has also been the debate on what is referred to as extended primary and FirstNet
eligibility. The FCC reviewed this and found that, “FirstNet has appropriately managed
FirstNet eligibility and the multi-tier priority among Primary and Extended Primary users.

Specifically, they said, “Some commenters question whether FirstNet has improperly expanded
the Spectrum Act definition of eligible “public safety” users by extending it to entities other
than first responder agencies (e.g., transit agencies, school districts, and public utilities).
FirstNet states that it has applied a definition of “public safety” users consistent with the Act,
under which first responders receive a higher priority level than other agencies that do not
provide emergency response, but that support public safety in other ways. FirstNet also notes
that the Spectrum Act authorizes it to offer service to non-public safety as well as public safety
users, so long as public safety receives priority. We find that FirstNet’s definition of “public
safety’ users and its tiered priority service approach to public safety users is consistent with the
Spectrum Act.”

The FCC confirms FirstNet has fulfilled the requirement to integrate with 911.

“Section 1426(b)(2)(C) requires FirstNet to promote integration of the network with Public
Safety Answering Points (PSAPs), or their equivalent. FirstNet states that the network was
structured to allow PSAPs and Public Safety Enterprise Networks (PSENs) to integrate with
the NPSBN core network. FirstNet also has had an Emergency Communications Center (ECC)
representative on the FirstNet Board since 2019 and has a full-time ECC subject matter expert
on staff. FirstNet states that since 2013 it has held over 2,200 engagements with
PSAP/911/ECC stakeholders and has published a quarterly newsletter focused on issues of
interest to ECC practitioners distributed to nearly 900 ECC stakeholders across the nation. We find that FirstNet has met this requirement.” It should also be noted that the current FirstNet
Authority Vice Chair is from the PSAP industry.

The FCC confirms that FirstNet properly worked to leverage existing infrastructure and
support partnership/collaboration with small, rural providers.

“We find that FirstNet has satisfied the requirement to leverage existing infrastructure in
fulfilling the duty and responsibility to deploy and operate the NPSBN, in that FirstNet entered
into agreements to utilize, to the maximum extent economically desirable, existing commercial
or other communications infrastructure; and Federal, State, tribal, or local infrastructure.”

The FCC finds FirstNet has fulfilled the rural coverage buildout requirements.

“We find that FirstNet has met the rural coverage requirements of Section 1426 of the
Spectrum Act. Specifically, the Act states that, in carrying out the duties and responsibilities,
including issuing RFPs, FirstNet must require deployment phases with substantial rural coverage
milestones as part of each phase of the construction and deployment of the network.
Moreover, the Spectrum Act requires, to the maximum extent economically desirable, that such
proposals include partnerships with existing commercial mobile providers to utilize cost-
effective opportunities to speed deployment in rural areas. FirstNet states that it incorporated
rural coverage as well as milestones in the NPSBN Contract, to satisfy the requirements of
section 1426(b)(3).”

It should be noted that this milestone shouldn’t be considered the final footprint of rural
coverage, rather it should be viewed as the beginning. FirstNet has and will continue to add
rural coverage to support first responders across the nation.

The FCC in approving the license, states that it will continue to monitor and oversee FirstNet’s
performance “as circumstances warrant.”

“In sum, based on the totality of the record, we conclude that FirstNet has sufficiently
demonstrated compliance with the requirements of the Spectrum Act to warrant renewal of its
license. We therefore grant FirstNet’s renewal for the remaining period of its authorization, not
to exceed ten years.”

The FCC notes it will continue to monitor AT&T’s performance under the contract and
FirstNet’s oversight of AT&T.

“We find that the security measures taken by FirstNet are sufficient to show compliance
with Section 1426(b)(2) for purposes of renewal. However, we condition renewal on FirstNet
fully completing implementation of the recommendations in the IG Report, in the projected
time frame, and we direct FirstNet to notify us of its satisfaction of these recommendations. In
addition, we will continue to monitor FirstNet’s performance with respect to security and reliability under its renewed license and are prepared to take further action under our oversight
authority if circumstances warrant.”

The Takeaway

So, there you have it, my take on the FCC’s renewal of FirstNet’s license. All told, the tone of the
above text indicates strong approval of FirstNet’s actions during its previous license period and
confidence on the FCC’s part that FirstNet’s responsible management of Band 14 spectrum in
service of American first responder communications will continue in the next period.

This is also a strong message to all of the fringe FirstNet naysayers and it confirms all of the
things we have been saying here at ATFN.


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