By James Careless
What does FirstNet need to get done in 2023?
That’s the second of two questions that AllThingsFirstNet put to former FirstNet CEO (now RapidSOS President of Public Sector) Edward Parkinson, Public Safety Broadband Technology Association Executive Director Martha Ellis, and Western Fire Chiefs Association (WFCA) Executive Director Chief Jeff Johnson. (The first one – What do you hope to see FirstNet accomplish in 2023? – was covered in another article.)
We also received ideas from 51 of our readers who took part in an online questionnaire. It was adeptly created and managed by Loredana Elsberry Schwartz, the PSBTA’s Director of Public Safety Engagement.
The Big One: Reauthorization
The 2012 Congressional law that authorized the creation of FirstNet expires in 2027. So when it comes to the organization’s Must-Dos in 2023, “the big one is the band 14 spectrum licence renewal and then to begin the process of Congressional reauthorization,” said Former FirstNet CEO Parkinson. Here’s the challenge: “The architects of the FirstNet program, Senators Rockefeller, McCain, Lieberman, and a number of House members are no longer in Congress and so there is a massive reeducation program that is required to tell the story of what FirstNet really is,” he told AllThingsFirstNet. “Once people understand, it’s a no-brainer to reauthorize the program, but that first step is so important.”
“FirstNet need to get their spectrum reauthorized and work on a public safety-focussed reinvestment strategy for 2023,” Chief Johnson agreed. “FirstNet is constantly reinvesting fees from public users into the growth, coverage and sophistication of FirstNet. 2023 will be a key year for the FirstNet Authority Board to set those reinvestment goals.”
To do this effectively, FirstNet needs a “documented SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis and a 5 year plan designed to leverage their strengths, fortify the weaknesses, seize the opportunities, and be proactive against threats to the program,” said PSBTA Executive Director Martha Ellis.
What The Respondents are
Of the 51 first responders who took part in our online questionnaire, thirty-nine are primary users of FirstNet, eight are extended primary users, one is an equipment supplier, and the rest are “interested parties”. Forty-four work with state, local or tribal public safety agencies. Two work for the federal government, and the rest are with the private sector.
Grow Infrastructure to Improve Coverage
Much like their answers to the question, ‘What do you hope to see FirstNet accomplish in 2023?’, the need for FirstNet to improve its coverage in 2023 is a big Must-Do for our respondents. Providing better coverage comes down to “More tower sites”, “Finishing [thr] network build”, and continuing “to enhance the network and develop a way to quickly notify first responders in the new service areas of the new coverage.” (Since this topic was covered in detail in our other story, we will make this brief reference here and move on.)
One thought that stands out is this one: “Build redundancy through other carriers so if AT&T goes down, all agencies that have bought into FirstNet won’t be out of service.” Certainly the guiding idea behind FirstNet is to ensure reliable nationwide coverage to first responders 24/7. Adding such multi-carrier redundancy would go a long way to achieving this goal, as would using other carriers’ infrastructure in areas where AT&T’s plant may not provide as much coverage.
Improve FirstNet’s Technology
There is no doubt that the respondents believe in FirstNet. This said, many believe there are ways to improve its performance and usefulness through technological enhancements. Their suggestions include ideas such as “5G!”, “Engineer a PTT button for iPhone,” “Upgrade its data coverages for faster speeds”, and “Begin bridging legacy systems with next gen systems – LMR needs to become data based to augment reach of LMR systems with LTE systems and vice versa.”
One respondent offered two Must-Dos for 2023: “1) Better streaming video! We still use Verizon for video. We can’t seem to get video on FirstNet working as well as on Verizon. 2) Easier integration of Push-to-talk. same town, but because we have different accounts it is difficult to be part of the same push-to-talk groups.”
Another Must-Do idea: “Get a lot more of those portable cell towers so FirstNet works where we do at fires and like in hurricanes,” wrote one respondent. “AT&T has a few but not even a drop in the bucket to what is really needed.”
This Must-Do answer also stood: “Fix roaming issues. On the Nez Perce Tribal Reservation (Idaho) over 50% of the coverage for FirstNet Devices is roaming coverage with a local provider (Inland Cellular),” a respondent wrote. “Connections in roaming areas are very low speed (many times below 1 Mbit) and phone call quality in roaming areas is many times unusable for voice services. These have all been reported to FirstNet over the last year but still have not improved. Native FirstNet coverage areas are great but roaming areas are really bad and it seems like FirstNet and Roaming Partners are not doing anything to fix.”
Finally, our respondents want FirstNet to deliver “Better text message reliability” and “Provide more data so that I can implement band 14 in my manufactured products location data from the ECC to the emergency service responders.”
Some Noteworthy Ideas
In addition to the groups of related Must-Dos above, our respondents had some standalone ideas worth considering.
One of these focusses on better security/resiliency of AT&T’s infrastructure assets. This means “Hardening of sites, both physically and [through] extended-run backup power,” one respondent wrote. “The Electric sub-station attack in NC has exposed to the general public how vulnerable they are. Cell Sites and building are in the same condition.”
Another suggested Must-Do calls for “Further transparency in contract and dealings with AT&T to build greater trust from public safety users and associations.” This is mirrored by another respondent’s call for “Better and open communication and partnering with state SWICs [Statewide Interoperability Coordinators] and ESF-2 [Emergency Support Function #2] partners.”
Three more possible Must-Dos: “Expand the user base, particularly secondary users”, enable “
Account holder access and easier reading billing”, and “Provide grants for EMS.”
A Bit of Gratitude
Online questionnaires do not tend to be venues for positive feedback. Yet four of our respondents used their Must-Do answer to actually express gratitude towards FirstNet, its people, and the work it does.
They said, “Continue being on point”, “Maintain everything accomplished so far”, “Continue to provide such awesome customer support to your customers at their location”, and, finally, “Keep up the good work.”