The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) is leading the development of a nationwide broadband network for fire, law enforcement and emergency medical services—our nation’s first responders.
As I speak at events or meetings about FirstNet, some may not recognize it solely by name. But when I talk about the promise of a broadband network, they certainly recognize the need for it.
These days, whether we’re in public safety or a member of the general public, we’re becoming more dependent on having access to technology wherever we go. For example, we’ve likely all benefitted from the power of communications technology on our smart phones or tablets to map a location and then use the device to guide us there.
For public-safety entities, mobile data is becoming a key tool in our communications toolkit.
Fire stations are receiving instantaneous alerts through broadband connections, allowing for a more-efficient and better-informed response. Firefighters are using smart-phone applications that locate nearest hydrants and others that provide best routing information for evacuations when necessary.
Paramedics are using tablets for patient-care reporting, making them more effective and efficient on the job. Law-enforcement agencies are using mobile computer terminals to watch dispatch information converge with mapping functions that can track officers and equipment as they arrive on scene.
The question then, especially from those outside public safety, becomes why a dedicated network? Why FirstNet?
The answers are what make FirstNet a true game-changer for public safety. They are priority, coverage, capacity and security. These are the difference between applications and functionality that are useful to have and those that are mission-critical.
First responders who are now using mobile data on the job are quick to tell where coverage is absent, why connections are slow and when they know the commercial networks will be unavailable.
Stadium events and large public gatherings have long been known to cause congestion. In November 2015, for example, the parade to celebrate the Kansas City Royals World Series victory caused widespread network failures despite added capacity. The service was so poor, it became a joke among the crowd that the devices in the hands of fans and public safety alike were about as useful as they would have been in 1985; the last time the Royals won the series.
But it doesn’t always take a large event to compromise service. Enough players on the same popular mobile video game in one area have been enough to make connections unavailable.
What’s worse, the networks are often compromised when they’re needed most. Wireless services were completely overwhelmed following the bombing at the Boston Marathon, just as communications were compromised after the shootings at Los Angeles International Airport.
Public safety has long relied on land mobile radio (LMR), and the Federal Communication Commission reserved several blocks of frequencies for exclusive use by public-safety agencies.
It’s simply understood that when a sheriff, a firefighter, a paramedic or a campus security officer needs to send or receive a call on the radio, he or she shouldn’t be competing with the general public on the airwaves. As mobile data becomes more integral to the work that public safety performs every day and the way citizens expect to interact with first responders, we can’t ask public safety to compete with a stadium full of football fans or a gaggle of gamers to get a vital, possibly lifesaving network connection.
The public-safety community recognized the need for its own dedicated network to improve communications and information sharing. A key step forward occurred when Congress passed the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 and required the FCC to reallocate the 700MHz D-Block spectrum for use by public-safety entities, granting a single license to FirstNet to use both the D-block and existing broadband spectrums. This creates a single public-safety network, linking local public-safety agencies with state, tribal and federal agencies through a combination of communication systems, thus allowing all to use it across many jurisdictions at the same time.
FirstNet will be tremendous for interoperability, providing the ability for data to go back and forth on a dedicated highway that’s now being built.
Furthermore, FirstNet will not only lift public safety off the commercial networks; it will also provide the security to send sensitive information, the bandwidth to stream video and the ease of a platform that can easily communicate across agencies.
The promise of FirstNet is also in its ability to bring together public-safety users on one network to drive innovation in applications and devices to provide the best services to public safety at the most affordable prices.
The final question I always get is: When? When will the network be available?
Since its creation, FirstNet has conducted a comprehensive consultation-and-outreach effort that resulted in a RFP to create a first-of-its-kind, public-private partnership. The goal of the partnership is to launch the network that public safety asked for as quickly and cost-effectively as possible.
The work to get here has been long and hard, but all at FirstNet know the most arduous tasks are ahead. To go rapidly from the vendor award to deployment will demand a relentless pace and a single focus from all involved. FirstNet is ready to meet that challenge and remains dedicated to the end goal, by meeting the timelines promised to the public-safety community. The need for FirstNet is real and pressing, and its promise must be realized.