Public Safety Advocate: Five-Plus Years of FirstNet!

Thu Feb 23 16:45:35 2017

FirstNet celebrates its five-year anniversary this month. The law that created FirstNet was signed by the President of the United States on February 22, 2012. However, the work really began when President Bush signed a law in 2006 requiring TV stations to vacate channels 52-69 no later than February 2008. Also in 2006, there was a series of discussions regarding the creation of a Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN) and in 2007, the FCC carved out 10 MHz (5X5) of the 700-MHz spectrum being vacated by TV stations, and then designated another 10 MHz of spectrum, known as the D-block to be bid on during auctions. The winner would work with Public Safety to create a private/public partnership to build out a nationwide broadband network.

Those driving this series of events included Morgan O’Brien, co-founder of Nextel, and Chief Harlin McEwen (Ret), who quickly became the champion of the Public Safety broadband network. In 2007, the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST), a non-profit corporation, was chosen by the FCC to hold the Public Safety broadband license. Chief McEwen was Chairman of the PSST and the board of directors was made up of representatives from fifteen national Public Safety organizations. When the D-block failed to be won at auction, the Public Safety community and the PSST worked with Congress to add the D-block to the 10 MHz of existing Public Safety spectrum to create a 10X10-MHz nationwide system.

This idea was opposed by several commercial network operators that had missed out on the 700-MHz spectrum and wanted the D-block to be re-auctioned without Public Safety restrictions. They were very vocal in their opposition, created several websites, and filed reams of documents with the FCC trying to prove Public Safety did not need more than 10 MHz of spectrum to meet its broadband needs. This opposition led to the creation of the Public Safety Alliance (PSA), which represented every form of the Public Safety community and included organizations such as the national association of governors and of mayors and had the support of many vendors within the wireless community as well as the two largest network operators.

It took the PSST, the PSA, APCO, NPSTC, and many other organizations until 2011 to gain traction with members of Congress and to convince some within the FCC that Public Safety would need access to more than the 10 MHz of spectrum already allocated. Tests were run simulating real-world capacity requirements using a variety of scenarios on a three-cell Public Safety LTE network that had been deployed by Motorola in Alameda County, CA. Those opposing the addition of the D-block were using the standard method of calculating commercial network capacity, using nineteen sites, each with three sectors. They assumed interference was common across all cell sectors, and then calculated the amount of traffic that could be handled over the network.

The issue came down to the fact that most local incidents occur within a rather small geographic area but require a large number of Public Safety personnel usually including law, fire, and EMS. This means capacity of the network needs to be calculated on a cell-sector basis as opposed to a set of wide-area network calculations. Remember too that LTE broadband provides faster data rates from the cell site down to field devices than in the upward direction. During an incident, the need for data and video services will be in both directions, to and from the incident, therefore capacity and speed of both the up and down portions of the network need to be put into perspective. These tests and the subsequent report provided to the FCC and members of Congress showed the Public Safety community needed access to a full 20 MHz (10X10 MHz) of spectrum, not only the 10 MHz already assigned.

While the discussions and testing were looking at network capacity, other roadblocks were put in the way of the decision on the D-block but the PSA found ways around each of these. One of the smartest things PSA did was to admit to those in the federal government that the Public Safety community would need an organization to oversee the build-out the network. Thus, within the Middle-Class Tax Relief Bill of 2012, Title VI, FirstNet was created as an independent authority under the NTIA, which is part of the Department of Commerce, and established a board of directors made up of department heads from the federal government, members of the business community, and members of the Public Safety community.

Since its inception in 2012, FirstNet has been working toward an award of the contract for a partner to build, operate, and maintain the network. In the early years, FirstNet was hampered by two things. The first was an attitude within the NTIA that FirstNet could not be an “independent authority” and therefore, frankly, some within the NTIA were heavy-handed in their dealings with FirstNet. Second was a serious distraction when allegations were made about improper hiring of consultants, and even charges of conflicts of interest. This resulted in all contractors, including those hired independently of the first group, being terminated. It also resulted in a delay of more than nine months in FirstNet returning to a functioning organization.

Then FirstNet found its sea legs, people were hired, changes were made, progress was plotted, deadlines were promised and kept, and it started to look as though FirstNet was back on track and moving ahead, still at a snail’s pace it seems to those of us on the outside, but to those accustomed to working with the federal government, it probably seemed like light speed. Public Safety could finally become excited about FirstNet and the promise of its own broadband network. All that was left to do was to award the RFP contract for a partner and start putting up antennas! However, once again, there have been delays, this time due to a court challenge of the RFP process. The court will hopefully resolve this issue soon and then FirstNet can award the contract.

Those who have worked at FirstNet know the obstacles of being part of the federal government, the delays, endless red tape, and rules and regulations that must be followed. They have persevered nonetheless and it appears that morale has been high, though the further delay caused by the lawsuit had to have been met with groans and disappointment from the folks who for the past few years have spent more time inside airplanes than their own homes. Let’s hope this latest delay is the last one before we start seeing progress and the states can see concrete presentations on what FirstNet coverage will be at first. Hopefully, each state will be able to work with FirstNet and the RFP partner to find ways to improve both coverage and network capacity where needed over time.

The reality of these increases in coverage is that they really should be the purview of the local jurisdictions. The first responders are the only ones who know their areas and coverage their LMR systems provide as well as coverage the commercial networks provide. It is one thing for the state to work with FirstNet to determine the coverage needed within the state if the state has, indeed, worked with those in the local jurisdictions. However, it is another if the state has simply stipulated a percentage of coverage like the one contained in the California RFI, which is a coverage requirement not being met today by any combination of LMR systems or any commercial operators’ systems. It is unrealistic to assume FirstNet will be able to meet such a requirement.

Years ago when we were testing pagers for one of the nationwide paging companies, we enlisted paramedics in the areas we were testing for the simple reason that EMS teams were all over the area, in buildings, in parking garages, and in other spots where incidents occur. We found if we could provide coverage for EMS teams we had coverage that was good enough for everyone. It is good that FirstNet is working with the states, and hopefully the states are working with the locals, but I am hearing that is not happening in many states. I hope before FirstNet shows up in a county or city those in that jurisdiction who are familiar with the existing coverage and requirements will have an opportunity to give their input to the contractor and work with the contractor and FirstNet over time to make sure their coverage needs are taken into account.

FirstNet is five years old this month but those who have been working to have the spectrum assigned to Public Safety and pushing for a FirstNet-type organization are celebrating at least ten years of effort. Everyone is ready for FirstNet’s next few years to be the most productive, putting the network in place, devices into first responders hands, and applications on the devices. I hope when FirstNet is ten, the Public Safety community has a robust, functional nationwide Public Safety broadband network for data and video services, and perhaps is also providing first responders with the capability of using FirstNet for interoperable push-to-talk in conjunction with LMR systems that are all still in operation and providing the same level of voice communications as today.

It seems like only yesterday the term ‘FirstNet’ was first used, but it has been five years! Congrats to all who are part of the FirstNet team. Keep up the great work!

Andrew M. Seybold

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