FirstNet Update: D Block One Year Later

Title VI of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 provided public safety with the needed spectrum to build a nationwide broadband network and created the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), an independent authority within the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).

Congress directed that FirstNet be run by a 15-person board of directors, with the secretary of Homeland Security, the attorney general and the director of the Office of Management and Budget named as permanent members. Four members have public-safety expertise, including Chief Jeff Johnson, CEO of the Western Fire Chiefs Association, IAFC president 2009-2010 and former chair of Oregon's Statewide Interoperability Council.

FirstNet will develop and operate the new broadband network, enabling first responders and public-safety officials to communicate with one another within and across jurisdictions. The secure network will support cutting-edge applications, such as enabling firefighters to download blueprints of burning buildings to plan their entry route and allowing EMTs to remotely access a victim's medical records from an ambulance.

Congress provided $7 billion of spectrum auction proceeds and valuable spectrum bandwidth (the 10 MHz of the D Block, which create a 20 MHz network) towards deployment of the nationwide network. NTIA has a borrowing authority of $2 billion to begin implementation.

Congress also provided $135 million for a new implementation grant program to be administered by NTIA to support state, regional, tribal and local jurisdictions' planning work with FirstNet. The grants are available to all 56 states and territories; will support planning, consultation, education and outreach activities; and will help fund efforts to collect information on infrastructure and equipment that FirstNet could use in building a wireless public-safety broadband network.

The broadband network may take years to build out. Initially it will only support data applications through the Long Term Evolution (LTE) standard. Recognizing this, mission-critical voice capabilities mainly carried through land mobile radios must be supported through funding and standards development to ensure operability and interoperability.

The FirstNet board met twice in 2012 after being formed in August. The board received hundreds of comments on an architectural concept provided at the initial meeting by one of the board members. A notice of intent provided public-safety stakeholders a medium for voicing concerns, reservations and suggestions about the proposed paths FirstNet could take.

During the initial meeting on September 25, the FirstNet board passed a resolution designating a subgroup of SAFECOM as the Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC). PSAC's mission is to help FirstNet create and sustain crucial dialogue with government and first responder leaders on how best to deploy the nationwide system.

FirstNet members visited the seven Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) recipients that desire to deploy early networks. The rollout of the projects had been halted by NTIA pending establishment of the FirstNet Board.

The FirstNet board members visited the New York City communications offices in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy to help non-public-safety members gain a better understanding of public safety's requirements for a resilient network.

In February, FirstNet's board unanimously approved letting the seven BTOP public-safety jurisdictions proceed with their plans to deploy public-safety LTE systems funded by federal stimulus grant money. The jurisdictions can proceed with their LTE projects utilizing the 700 MHz spectrum consisting of the 10 MHz previously licensed to the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) and the 10 MHz D Block that Congress reallocated to public safety last year. While FirstNet board members gave these jurisdictions the green light to proceed, they must demonstrate they have enough funding to complete their projects and must commit to building a network that eventually will become part of the First Net nationwide network.

On February 6, NTIA announced the availability of $121.5 billion (presumably the remainder of the $135M is for NTIA administrative costs) in grants to begin implementation of the planning.

FirstNet in its early existence was criticized for failing to reach out to first responders and companies. FirstNet has been somewhat hampered by the administrative red tape involved in setting up an independent authority within NTIA. The four members of the board who represent public safety have a very difficult role and are doing an admirable job with helping to manage a lot of substantive issues.

Therefore, as of today, FirstNet has a loan of $2 billion from the U.S. Treasury, with a promise of $5 billion more from future spectrum auctions. The timing of these auctions is unknown as is the amount of money they will raise. It is unknown when, or even if, this additional $5 billion will become available to FirstNet. In the meantime, FirstNet is gearing up, working on network architecture, talking to potential partners and beginning to meet with the states, territories and tribes as mandated in the act.

As FirstNet moves forward, there will be many technical hurdles to overcome. In addition, at the same time, the Board will have to deal with non-technical individuals from the federal, state and local levels that do not have a great understanding of the broadband network and their perceptions of what the system can deliver in the short term. Public safety needs to be aware of these perceptions and help educate these officials to the capabilities and limitations of the system as it is rolled out.

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