I write and speak about this subject quite often. The reason is simple. FirstNet is the result of a public/private partnership that continues to work well and is required by law to provide rural first responders with broadband access. Even with this mandate, it is not possible for FirstNet to provide rural broadband coverage in as many places as there are rural businesses and citizens who do not have access to broadband services.
The federal government has sufficient funding in the way of grants and low-cost loans to provide rural broadband nearly everywhere, but each of the many agencies continues to be its own fiefdom and many of the grants are designed specifically to provide fiber to the home or farm. Ask any farmer where broadband is more important, in their house or covering their fields, and the answer will always be their fields but they want it at home, too. Serving their homes with fiber only addresses part of the need for broadband. Fiber to a hub with wireless serving the areas is more effective and much less expensive on a house-to-house basis. The latest forecasts I have seen coming out of the federal agencies are that they will allocate $8,000 per household for fiber. We could never afford to cover every house and business in rural America at that cost.
The real issue remains the lack of leadership from the federal government and many of the states, though a few are pushing hard to make broadband happen in their rural areas. There is no lack of need or lack of funding. However, each federal agency has different rules for grants—who can apply, how long they last, what they can be used for, and on and on. The federal folks are pricing only fiber to the home with no budget for ongoing maintenance and build-out, or to pay for necessary actions needed to keep the system in operation.
The good news is that rural America is served by cellular providers large and small. The Competitive Carriers Association’s (CCA) members cover much of rural America but at this point most of them have only deployed 3G services. There are private Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in many rural areas using various forms of wireless systems to beam Internet down to customers. Co-op power companies that serve many rural areas in 47 states all want and need broadband for their grid control. They have trucks and people on the ground in these areas and would love to be part of a plan to resell broadband services to their users.
It appears as though the U.S. House of Representatives recently passed The Broadband Permitting and Efficiency Act of 2018, but I cannot find any evidence that the Senate has passed anything similar. Instead, there seem to be a number of bills up for consideration that are all over the map when it comes to providing broadband coverage in rural and impoverished areas. The year is grinding to a close, once again with little or no real action for those in rural America who need and want broadband services. FirstNet is building in rural areas as fast as it can because it is required by Congress to deploy as many FirstNet spectrum assets in rural America as it does in metro areas. FirstNet (Built by AT&T) is responding, but we could expand on and perhaps solve more of the rural coverage issues if there was a central point of contract that could facilitate formation and funding of private/public partnerships so those who want to add to FirstNet’s rural build-out can do so and work with FirstNet on supplying wireless broadband to rural areas. With the advent of 5G and small-cell technology, it is more than possible to light up entire villages and small towns with fast wireless and also provide wide-area coverage at LTE speeds.
There is nothing wrong with a blended model of fiber/microwave to LTE and 5G integrated wireless systems. In fact, this model makes the most sense economically. The funds sitting ready for use under the auspices of far too many federal agencies could and should be released for planning, development, construction, and ongoing costs of the networks. If we pool all the funds that have been committed including the new FEMA public safety grants that came and went in the blink of an eye this year, there is enough money that the topic of rural broadband for most rural areas could be written about in the past tense.
There are many potential partners out there including states, counties, towns, educational and medical operations, farming, and small and large businesses. A survey was conducted in Arizona and it was determined that a primary reason larger companies are not considering moving to rural areas is not the lack of potential employees but rather the lack of broadband services needed to run and expand their business operations. Broadband can help small companies grow larger and hire more people, it can assist farmers with more efficient ways to grow healthy crops, and broadband can provide students of all ages with broadband at school, on the school bus, and at home.
The fact that we have not solved the rural broadband problem so far rests, in my mind, squarely on the shoulders of those in the federal government. They believe they are helping promote broadband, doing everything they can, but there are too many different organizations each seeming to believe it has the best solution. The result is that not much is happening. We have made some progress but much more needs to be done—even most FCC broadband coverage maps are not accurate. Further, many of the largest fiber suppliers are not easy to work with and will not publish maps of their fiber assets. Yet in meeting after meeting when asked where there is fiber today, the smaller fiber providers stand up and hand over their maps, saying they are ready to work with the county, state, or anyone else.
Every time I talk about rural broadband coverage to an elected official or someone who wants to be elected, he/she is very positive about making it happen. Yet when I mention FirstNet and its federal mandate, or public/private partnerships, he/she doesn’t know anything about how to go about making anything happen. It is not enough to say rural broadband is a priority, it is essential we have leadership from people who know how to accomplish things instead of simply reading applications for funding and passing judgement on their merit.
What Will It Take?
What will be the catalyst that finally convinces organizations and people to work together to solve these two problems? We need to find ways to serve all within the borders of the United States with broadband regardless of their location (within reason) and certainly regardless of their ability to pay. Years ago, when Apple first invented desktop publishing and HP made the first laser printers, I wrote that desktop publishing was an equalizer between large and small companies and how they were able to present themselves. Desktop publishing gave everyone the ability to put a more professional face on their products.
Broadband is today’s equalizer. To my way of thinking, it is mandatory that all of us have access to broadband services. It is time to put together a coherent plan to make broadband a priority everywhere, not only where it is economically practical. This will require everyone working together and it will require an understanding that fiber/microwave, wireless LTE, and 5G nodes can and should be deployed in a cohesive, planned set of build-outs. A dribble of funding here and a dribble there won’t work. We need a pool of all the resources the federal government says it has to implement broadband working with FirstNet, other carriers, power providers, and state and local organizations to get the job done. Broadband access should not be kept from public safety or any other people who want and need it, there are ways to provide access. However, at present, the federal government has too many programs, spread out over too many agencies, each with different criteria and requirements. The only requirement should be a plan and then action.
FirstNet Authority’s New Vice-Chairman
Sheriff Richard Stanek of Hennepin County, Minnesota, was first sworn in as Sheriff in January 2007 and joined the FirstNet Authority board of directors in September 2014 after Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald was not reappointed to the board. This week, Sheriff Stanek was named vice-chair. He has been involved and active on the board, and he is conversant with what is taking place in the world of FirstNet.
The National Sheriff’s Association released the following statement:
“The National Sheriff’s Association is pleased that Sheriff Stanek has been named Vice Chairman of the FirstNet Board. Our nation’s sheriffs have been at the forefront of the effort to create the only nationwide network dedicated to first responders, and we are pleased that a sheriff has been asked to help lead the organization responsible for delivering that network. Sheriff Stanek has been a leader on law enforcement communications, and we know the FirstNet Board and all of public safety will benefit from his expertise. President Sheriff John Layton, National Sheriff’s Association.”
As an aside, when the Public Safety Alliance (PSA) and others were walking the halls of Congress drumming up support for what was to become FirstNet, the sheriffs who were part of the effort held a lot of sway with the members of Congress since sheriffs are elected and most of them received more votes in their counties than the members of Congress they were calling on. It is good to see Sheriff Stanek appointed to vice-chair. He has been through the hoops at FirstNet and knows his way around.
There is, or will be shortly, another important opening at the FirstNet Authority—the position of CEO. I have stated before that I am hoping the new CEO will come from within the ranks of the FirstNet Authority. Bringing in an outsider is not what the organization needs at the moment. There are many important issues that remain the purview of the Authority including overseeing FirstNet (Built by AT&T). These issues need to be addressed on an ongoing basis and having a CEO from within the ranks who has been working on many of these issues would be the best move the Department of Commerce and NTIA could make.
Other board seats remain to be filled but I am hearing that the new board members have already been chosen, have accepted, and are completing the reams of government paperwork required. Meanwhile, the day-to-day operations of the FirstNet Authority need to be overseen by a new CEO, one from the inside who knows what needs to be done and can hit the ground running.
There are a number of improvements I would like to see in the way FirstNet (Built by AT&T) is responding to the public safety community. FirstNet is a lot better now than when it first undertook this mission, but I still receive occasional calls and emails from organizations that have not yet been contacted by FirstNet. The latest of these was couched as a series of questions regarding what, exactly, FirstNet is and how an agency goes about joining. I am surprised there are agencies that have not been visited by someone to discuss FirstNet and how and why to join. Admittedly, some of these queries are coming from small departments, but they should still be visited and presented with all the information they need to decide if FirstNet is the right choice for them going forward.
FirstNet is coming along, but there are still new applications to be written, new devices to be invented, operations to be refined and practiced, and much more. And like anything, training is essential. Even departments that have been using commercial wireless broadband need to be brought up to speed on the nuances of the FirstNet system. While it is early, the learning curve is beginning. It will take some time to make FirstNet all it can be, but we are certainly off to a great start.
Andrew M Seybold
©2018, Andrew Seybold, Inc.