The First Responder Network (FirstNet) and Next-Generation Communications for Public Safety: Issues for Congress 2017

Lennard G. Kruger
Specialist in Science and Technology Policy
January 26, 2017

Summary

Congress included provisions in the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 (P.L.
112-96) for planning, building, and managing a new, nationwide, broadband network for public
safety communications, by creating the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet). The act
allocated 10 MHz of additional radio frequency spectrum to accommodate the new network and
required that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) assign a license to FirstNet,
comprising the newly designated frequencies plus 10 MHz previously assigned to states by the
FCC for public safety use. In addition, the act designated federal appropriations of over $7 billion
for the network and other public safety needs. These funds are provided through new revenue
from the auction of licenses to the commercial sector in other spectrum bands.

The establishment of FirstNet is an important step toward reaching what has been a national goal
since September 11, 2001: the provision of interoperable communications for first responders.
The immediate goal for FirstNet is to provide a broadband network nationwide to carry data,
although it will provide an option for voice communications as well. The cost of constructing and
maintaining a nationwide network is estimated by many experts to be in the tens of billions of
dollars over the long term. The law anticipates that most of these costs will be covered by
partnerships between FirstNet and the private sector in return for commercial access to FirstNet’s
spectrum.

In order to maintain control over the quality and nature of communications, many states are likely
to continue to invest in and maintain their own Land Mobile Radio (LMR) networks that operate
on narrowband frequencies under the jurisdiction of state and local public safety agencies.
Information available to the public indicates that FirstNet intends to discourage states from
building and operating their own networks within FirstNet, in part by limiting the amount of
spectrum available for this purpose. FirstNet has taken the position that state autonomy in
network design decisions and management will jeopardize FirstNet’s ability to provide a network
that meets its coverage and service goals.

P.L. 112-96 was signed into law on February 22, 2012, setting in motion the process of setting up
FirstNet as an “independent authority within the National Telecommunications and Information
Administration,” as required by the act; laying out the parameters for partnerships and state,
tribal, and federal participation; and meeting requirements either statutory or practical. After
extensive consultation with stakeholders and potential partners in preparing proposals for
partnering with FirstNet, the initial phases of organization culminated with the deadline for
submitting proposals to build and operate the nationwide network, on May 31, 2016.

On November 21, 2016, one of the FirstNet bidders eliminated from consideration, Rivada
Mercury, filed a lawsuit in the U.S. Court of Appeals of Federal Claims over what Rivada says is
the illegal and wrongful exclusion of the consortium from the FirstNet procurement process. The
lawsuit is expected to delay the contract award until March 1, 2017, at the earliest, although
further delays are possible depending on the resolution of the lawsuit.

Once the contract is awarded, the contractor will have up to 180 days to deliver detailed
deployment plans to each state and territory. Governors will then have 90 days to decide whether
to opt-in to FirstNet or to opt-out and build their own Radio Access Network which must be
interoperable with FirstNet. As FirstNet becomes operational, the potential level of public safety
agency participation should be better understood, providing opportunities to evaluate the success
of FirstNet in meeting the goals Congress set for it in 2012. The 115th Congress will likely
continue monitoring the development and deployment of FirstNet through periodic hearings in
both the House and Senate.

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