Public Safety Advocate: FirstNet the Authority and More

With AT&T beating every due date, dealing with its coverage issues head-on, and deploying Band 14 ahead of schedule, not to mention certifying new FirstNet-approved devices, sometimes we forget FirstNet is the most important public/private partnership this nation has ever seen. When Congress formed FirstNet in 2012, it became an independent authority under the auspices of the National Telecommunications and Information Association (NTIA), which is a part of the Department of Commerce. FirstNet the Authority, as it has become known, was responsible for putting together the FirstNet request for proposal, distributing it, and making the award. Even with the delays caused by others, it shepherded the request through to a successful conclusion and awarded the FirstNet contract to AT&T.

Since then, the focus for public safety has been on FirstNet (Built by AT&T) and not so much on FirstNet the Authority although it continues to play many important roles going forward including being the final authority on how well AT&T is doing against the deliverables established both in the RFP and in the final contract. FirstNet the Authority still has a large staff of qualified people working with federal, state, and local agencies to ensure they fully understand the importance of joining FirstNet (Built by AT&T) and how to go about it. It is the checks and balances organization that, if AT&T strays from the goals set up in the contract (which to my knowledge it has not done) FirstNet the Authority has the clout to ensure AT&T gets back on track.

It is easy to see exactly how engaged both FirstNet the Authority and its board of directors have remained throughout the process. Its last meeting was held August 13, 2018, after the APCO show. Each committee reported to the board on activity that impacts FirstNet. Fiscal highlights for 2018 include that AT&T earned a sustainability payment of $5.5 billion, and the Authority was once again given a clean bill of health by the Inspector General (IG) in his report. This makes five years in a row the IG passed the Authority with high marks. Furthermore, the finance committee reported it met the financial requirements of FirstNet while staying under budget, perhaps one of a very few government-related agencies that does stick to its budget. During 2019, it appears as though funds will be made available for independent validation and verification of the public safety network coverage, which is an important task.

The CEO of FirstNet the Authority outlined his priorities for 2019 including continued oversight of the building, operation, and maintenance of the network, reviewing reinvestment analyses and recommendations for future investment, continued outreach and advocacy to ensure the public safety community is pleased with the network being provided, and for staff to continue support for all network operations and FirstNet programs, audits, and inspections. Anyone who wondered exactly how FirstNet the Authority would spend its time after the bid award should be pleased that it is staying deeply involved in all aspects of the partnership.

The CTO’s Report

FirstNet the Authority’s CTO had good news for Band 14 deployments around the country. When FirstNet was first authorized, a number of agencies had licensed portions of Band 14 for Land Mobile Radio (LMR) use and had complete systems up and operating in that spectrum. FirstNet the Authority came up with a budget to clear Band 14 and relocate the agencies and in the CTO’s report, he stated that four state systems and several municipal systems had been relocated out of Band 14 for a total of $27 million, well under the approved budget.

The CTO’s office has also been working with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to help clear the way for vendors (mostly) that ask for permission to operate in Band 14 in order to test their equipment. These cases have to be considered individually and so far, it appears there has not been any interference due to these temporary operating permits. Keeping the spectrum clear going forward will require FirstNet the Authority and the FCC to work closely together and it appears that the CTO’s organization has developed a great working relationship with the FCC.

Network Operation Highlights

As reported elsewhere, the report to FirstNet the Authority stated that as of July of 2018, there were “nearly” 1,500 public safety entities in 52 states and territories making use of FirstNet and this includes 110,000+ connections on FirstNet-branded devices.

FirstNet the Authority Passed Board Resolution 92

This resolution cites the value provided by Chair Sue Swenson over the years and her ability to move FirstNet into action. She has worked tirelessly as the Chair of FirstNet. I worked for Sue as a consultant a number of times before she came to FirstNet and I knew her as capable and talented, but I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly she became a member of the public safety community who cares deeply about how FirstNet is being built and used. Not many outsiders come to truly understand the differences between commercial cellular broadband and FirstNet broadband. Sue understood and conveyed that information to others so they could understand it too. She will be missed by all of us who have worked on behalf of FirstNet.

Sue recently received the President’s Award from the International Association Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and I will be in attendance at the Radio Club of America (RCA) banquet in November when she will be awarded the DeMello Award, which is presented each year at the banquet by the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC). By the time Sue is finished, she will have to build a special room in her house for all of her well-deserved awards.

FirstNet the Authority is a viable and important part of the FirstNet partnership. I am hoping that when the NTIA announces new board members it will have taken the time to find members of the same quality as Sue Swenson and Chief Johnson (Ret), two people who have contributed much more time and effort to the cause than what the federal government is permitted to pay them for. If we did not have this type of dedication among all FirstNet the Authority hires, we could be facing a very different outcome than we have today. Thanks to all of you at the Authority for supporting public safety!

Coverage

Emails and calls about coverage issues as well as the issue of FirstNet replacing LMR radio systems keep coming. Let’s address the latter issue first. Public safety as a whole knows the need for LMR voice communications will not go away anytime soon. FirstNet (Built by AT&T) and FirstNet the Authority both agree that FirstNet enhances public safety communications but unfortunately, that does not stop elected officials from the federal level down to the local level from believing others who tell them FirstNet is a mission-critical network and LMR is no longer needed.

I am willing to bet that I field at least a dozen emails and calls about this topic each month and even more around the end of the budget year when new budgets are being reviewed and put into place. Local governments especially are looking for ways to cut their budgets and when elected officials are not aware of the continued need for LMR even with FirstNet, one of the seemingly logical assumptions is they can do away with all funding for LMR systems. While it might seem logical to them because of what they have heard, what they have heard is WRONG! LMR funding needs to remain and, in fact, many LMR systems need to be updated over the course of the next ten years. This misunderstanding is caused by non-public safety people who throw around the term “mission-critical” without understanding what mission-critical is really all about. The fact that 3GPP, the LTE standards body, was conned into calling its push-to-talk work “mission-critical” is turning out to be causing more problems than ever. What we need is a time out from talking about Mission-Critical FirstNet to talk about the FirstNet network itself. The public safety community will decide when and if the FirstNet network becomes mission-critical in nature, no one else is qualified to make that determination.

Looking at FirstNet coverage, I can tell you from my observations and the tests I run with my Sierra Wireless MG-90 and my FirstNet phone that the coverage is becoming better by the week. For example, the Yuma area of Arizona now has Band 14 installed. Other areas I have been visiting have better coverage than they did only a few short weeks ago and while FirstNet is not talking about where and when it is building new sites, it is easy to tell when new sites are turned on. AT&T has pledged to continue to build out as fast as possible and it appears it is living up to its promises in many areas of the United States.

Still, once in a while I run into someone who is complaining about coverage in their local area. I try to obtain as much information from him/her as possible because FirstNet needs input from others as it continues to roll out coverage. However, when I come upon a hardnosed person who claims FirstNet is not living up to its mission, I have to remind him/her that if a company other than AT&T had been awarded the contract and was only building out what we expected in the RFP, which was a Band 14-only network, most of the United States would have to wait three to five years to see the network come online. Today a lot of the country is being covered by FirstNet with more coverage on the way. Patience is called for as we work toward achieving the ultimate goal.

Winding Down

There are also those who say I am pro-AT&T in my writings and my views. However, they miss the point—I am PRO-FIRSTNET, and AT&T was awarded the contract to build the network. If you are a regular reader, you have read comments from me where I believe AT&T missed the mark as well as what it has done right. Because of having been involved with what became FirstNet for more than ten years, I admit that FirstNet has become the focus of my business life. When I started writing about public safety broadband there was no thought yet as to what would make up the future. Part of our future has become the past with the formation of the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST), which held the license for the first 10 MHz of what is now FirstNet’s spectrum, and the coming together of the many different agencies to form the Public Safety Alliance (PSA) in an effort to interest Congress in what public safety wanted and needed.

In 2010, I received a call from the then Assistant Police Chief of San Jose asking me to join in the fight. They needed a technical person who could write so I joined in and worked alongside a wonderful group of people until we succeeded. We were often told we never stood a chance to obtain the needed spectrum and funds but the public safety community, when facing an impossible task, simply starts fighting harder and we won. The number of people who gave their time and effort to achieve these goals is astounding. As we put together a litany of experiences we hope will turn into a book, I am constantly surprised by how many people were really pulling for this project to come together.

FirstNet is operational, coverage is improving, more devices are finding their way into the FirstNet eco-system and more departments are joining and becoming FirstNet users. There is still much work to be done, but at some point, FirstNet will serve each and every department in this nation and the promise of interoperability from area to area and from state to state will be fully realized. Until then, enjoy the journey and take part in making it happen.

Andrew M. Seybold
©2018, Andrew Seybold, Inc.

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