Public Safety Advocate: FirstNet—A Three-Way Partnership

When FirstNet was signed into law, The FirstNet Authority was created as an independent authority reporting to the National Telecommunications and Information Agency (NTIA) under the U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC). It was funded with $7 Billion not from the U.S. Treasury but from proceeds of future spectrum auctions. Designed to be a public/private partnership, FirstNet recognized that the $7 Billion funding was only a “starter kit” to defray some but certainly not all FirstNet network build costs and development of The FirstNet Authority. 

As an added incentive for companies to bid on the build-out and partnership, Congress included a provision in the law permitting the winning bidder to use the public-safety spectrum (20 MHz of Band 14 700-MHz spectrum) on a secondary basis to recoup some of the funds it would spend to build the network. The law also permits the contractor to charge public-safety users for access to the network with some of that revenue to be returned to The Authority for future use. 

Only one of the three bidders, AT&T, was an existing broadband network company. The 25-year contract, which specifies a five-year build-out period for the network, was awarded to AT&T in March 2017. To the surprise of many, in AT&T’s response to the FirstNet RFP it offered up all its existing LTE spectrum for public-safety use with the same pre-emption and priority access as Band 14. Later, as AT&T’s 5G spectrum began being built out, FirstNet (Built with AT&T) announced it would also provide the same full public-safety access to AT&T’s 5G spectrum

While the financial arrangement may seem confusing, it has been working exceedingly well so far. In summary, AT&T spends many $Billions of its own funds to build out the FirstNet (Built with AT&T) network. The FirstNet Authority retains $1 Billion for its operation and turns over portions of the initial $6 Billion to AT&T as it completes milestones. And FirstNet (Built with AT&T) charges public-safety users for access to the network and returns a portion of these fees to The Authority for network enhancements. 

The five-year build plan calls out milestones to be met along the way and serious monetary penalties if they are missed. Milestones include specific time intervals for minimum percentages of populated areas of the United States to be covered with Band 14, minimum numbers of new public-safety subscribers, the rollout of Mission-Critical Push-To-Talk (PTT), and more. As AT&T completes milestones, it draws down portions of the $6 Billion allocated by The FirstNet Authority. And FirstNet (Built with AT&T) makes required payments to The FirstNet Authority. 

FirstNet Authority Authorizes $218 Million Investment in 5G

A few months ago, The FirstNet Authority board approved a plan to authorize spending a portion of the funds returned to it by FirstNet (Built with AT&T). Further, management stated that the public-safety community has been and will continue to be asked to comment on uses of these funds before they are allocated.

June 17, 2020, The FirstNet Authority board of directors approved a total expenditure of $218 Million to upgrade FirstNet core functionality to accommodate 5G services being built out by AT&T in addition to 4G (LTE). To be clear, the FirstNet “core” is not a single core in a single location; it is made up of multiple, redundant cores across the United Sates. The FirstNet Authority will issue task orders to AT&T for the upgrade and to add more deployables to be used for major incidents or other events where additional coverage and services are needed. There was no indication of how much of the $218 million will be used to upgrade the core and how much will be used for new deployables, but the prevailing consensus is that the core upgrade will take the lion’s share.

According to press reports, the funds were actually available last September but since this was to be the first investment back into the network, it took a lot of time and effort to jump through all the hoops to cut through all the federal red tape. According to The Authority Chairman, future investments should be simpler to make now that the groundwork has been laid.

A Three-Way Partnership

In the beginning, there was some concern about how a public/private partnership of this size would work. As it has turned out, kinks were worked out and due in large part to past and present board members, it has worked well. However, this public/private partnership has become the three-way partnership that was originally envisioned: the public-safety user community, FirstNet (Built with AT&T) as the network service provider, and The FirstNet Authority, which oversees the entire network, discusses issues with the public-safety community, and ensures all conditions of the contract award are being met. 

Today, The Authority board of directors relies on input from executives of the organization and the Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC), which is made up of public-safety professionals and a number of PSAC sub-committees. The FirstNet Authority and FirstNet (Built with AT&T) have highly-qualified people in the field working directly with states and public-safety agencies and responding to any issues they may encounter. As one would expect with any project of this proportion, there have been glitches along the way. There have been times when the State Points of Contacts (SPOCs) appointed by state governors felt they were not receiving the information they needed regarding what was happening in their states from either FirstNet organization. From time to time there has also been a lack of communications between and among participants in this partnership and, of course, there have been times when some who had chosen not to participate in the project have claimed FirstNet is not meeting its objectives. 

As with any successful endeavor, others will take their potshots and complain this or that needs to be changed. Even so, as far as I can tell, this three-way partnership is working well and when issues do arise, its members are jumping in to solve problems in a timely fashion. Many of us have had experiences with public-safety Land Mobile Radio (LMR) systems developing problems and the various vendors pointing fingers at each other. One reason public safety was so adamant about having a single network provider is too many bad experiences with multi-vendor LMR systems where no one took responsibility for resolving a problem. This three-way partnership may still have some rough edges but from most perspectives, it is working well and providing the nationwide coverage and interoperability both the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) and the Public Safety Alliance (PSA) fought for so diligently. 

This partnership is still young but it has changed the way many within the public-safety community communicate within their own organizations and with members of other agencies on an as-needed basis. While there are still some issues with interoperable traffic over the network today and where it needs to be in the future, the solution continues to be a work-in-progress. Beyond 4G, FirstNet will move into the 5G world as AT&T builds out its 5G network, which is actually three different networks based on the same technology. For more on this, see my Advocate column of a few weeks ago.

The FirstNet Authority has more to do with input from its board and staff, the public-safety community, FirstNet (Built with AT&T), and FirstNet customers (public safety). However, what has been built and is in use today provides a number of enhanced communications capabilities for the public-safety community. And as I continue to point out, the availability of both land mobile radio and FirstNet provides more communications redundancy and the ability for disparate agencies to communicate during common incidents. 

Many FirstNet users are providing feedback, comments, and suggestions about how the network might be tuned and devices and applications can be added to enhance the network’s capabilities. If you follow The FirstNet Authority and FirstNet (Built with AT&T) on Twitter and other news sources, you will see a lot of information sharing among those in the field to assist each other in getting the most from this new communications network. Blogs, podcasts, webinars, and discussions are available every week and it is important that public safety, the network, the Authority, and equipment and service vendors are well-informed with feedback and updates so they can make the FirstNet experience even better.

2020 Six-Month Report

The first six months of 2020 have been very different from any other six-month period I can remember. Our world and the world of our first responders has been turned upside down. We consider more and more people to be first responders as our lives have changed and many of us have been working from home. First responders can’t stay at home and answer our calls for service.

I had expected many developments in Push-To-Talk (PTT) interoperability on the FirstNet network and between LMR and FirstNet to be further along in their development. Progress has slowed for Next-Generation 9-1-1 (NG911) as well. I had expected a clearer view of how it will be rolled out and more compatible across Emergency Communications Centers (ECCs) by now, and other activities have been similarly affected. I remain hopeful there will be much progress by the end of the year.

Spectrum matters are still at the forefront for public safety. Congress has not repealed the T-Band giveback, which is now closer to disrupting public-safety communications for agencies in eleven of our major metro areas and their suburbs where smaller and, in many cases, volunteer organizations also use T-Band channels. There is no other spectrum available for these systems, and even if there was, these agencies can’t afford to move. Time is running out; the T-Band spectrum giveback must be repealed before there is a crisis.

You might remember that over the objections of many critical-communications microwave users, the FCC passed a report and order to permit unlicensed WiFi 6 systems to co-exist (supposedly) in the 6-GHz band. Mixing licensed and unlicensed users on a band set aside for point-to-point critical microwave is a bad idea. I have heard but not verified that the FCC is considering adding to unlicensed WiFi 6 users’ capabilities by permitting use of devices that move from place to place but they will not be subject to the automated WiFi 6 database approach. This could play havoc with the microwave systems, and wearable WiFi 6 devices will be almost impossible to track.

Another recent FCC ruling allows Ligado to operate a “low-power” 5G system in spectrum much too close to spectrum that has historically been used for GPS location receivers that are relied on by almost every type of federal, state, and local agency, by broadband network providers, 9-1-1 callers to aid dispatch centers in determining where calls originate, and everyone who uses GPS for navigation while driving or walking. In 2012, we fought the same company under a different name when it wanted to use this spectrum for an LTE network. FCC commissioners at the time ruled against building the network. Today’s commissioners don’t seem to be as interested in protecting our radio spectrum by carefully reviewing and testing new uses before they are authorized. A number of federal and private organizations have asked the FCC to reverse this decision and some have been raising Congressional awareness of the interference it could cause to the GPS location system.

Winding Down

The FirstNet Authority announced the addition of a listing of all the states and territories on its website (FirstNet.gov) that identifies The FirstNet Authority’s public-safety advisors by state. Click on your state and you will see an opening statement about FirstNet in your state followed by News and Events for your state. If you return to the first page of this feature and click on “Fire Service,” for example, you will learn who the subject-matter expert is for Fire Service and specific fire-service information. The same is true for 9-1-1, law enforcement, EMS, tribal nations, emergency management, federal users, and the FirstNet extended community. This addition to The FirstNet Authority’s website is worth a visit whether you are with an agency already using FirstNet or are considering the move to FirstNet. 

I would like to remind our readers that AllThingsFirstNet.com, the website that hosts the Public Safety Advocate, is worth visiting on a regular basis and you can subscribe to its weekly news brief the same way you subscribed to the Advocate. A sister site, AllThingsECC.com, is dedicated to Emergency Communications Centers (ECCs) and is focused on 9-1-1 Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs), dispatch, and services that provide front-end, or public-facing activities for the public-safety community. Together, these two sites will keep you abreast of all that is happening in the public-safety communications world including news, upcoming events, and pertinent articles I believe you will find informative. 

During this pandemic, most but not all conferences have been cancelled. IWCE cancelled in March, rescheduled for August, and now, out of an abundance of caution, this year’s event will be a virtual conference. Mobile World Congress in the United States has been cancelled, the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference normally held in the fall will be an online virtual conference this year, and many others have been cancelled or will be virtual. And now, APCO’s Conference scheduled for August 2-5 in Orlando, FL has been cancelled.

While most of our first responders do not have the luxury of working from home, many of us continue to work from home to provide even better capabilities for FirstNet, 9-1-1, and land mobile radio. Several committees I serve on are moving steadily forward and I expect new reports and documents to be released during the last six months of this year. I am also hopeful we will see some real progress in push-to-talk interoperability for both FirstNet and LMR systems and PTT will become easier and less expensive. Working from home has enabled more people who have been working toward these goals in their “spare time” to spend even more time on them, and I think this will mean some advances I did not expect to be ready until 2021 will be released this year!

Until next week…

Andrew M. Seybold
©2020, Andrew Seybold, Inc.

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