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FirstNet faces long odds for success

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Anyone even vaguely interested in the hurdles faced by the First Responders Network Authority (FirstNet) in building and operating the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN) would be well served by reading a recent report from The Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. Its 52 pages detail the ins and outs of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, which created FirstNet, and analyzes how funding issues, incongruent requirements and timing threaten goals set for the NPSBN.

Most of us don't need to read a report to figure out that funding is going to be a major issue. In passing the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 in February, Congress allocated $7 billion for the NPSBN. But it is important to remember that only $2 billion of that is really available at this point. The rest will not be available until the FCC conducts its incentive auctions, which are not slated to begin until sometime in 2014.

It is impossible to predict accurately at this point how much money the auctions may really raise, because the amount of spectrum on the table will depend upon how willing broadcasters are to give up their frequencies. And even if $5 billion is raised for FirstNet, considerably more funding will likely be needed to build out a fully interoperable, nationwide LTE network for first responders.

The Potomac Institute cites those issues and also hammers the National Telecommunications and Information Administration for its actions after the taxpayer relief act was passed. Specifically, NTIA asked recipients of grants from the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) to delay or suspend certain expenditures for their planned public-safety 700 MHz LTE networks and requested that the FCC revoke the waivers issued to 21 jurisdictions (BTOP or not) for such networks. NTIA claimed it was concerned that projects undertaken by those jurisdictions might not be compatible with the ultimate design of the NPSBN.

NTIA's actions could delay the use of the public safety spectrum in those jurisdictions for years until FirstNet is able to extend the NPSBN to those areas, according to the study. "The mindset that the new NPSBN has to be a single network may be driving a timeline that excludes a phased, flexible deployment," said the institute.

"The funding scheme and the complexities of launching a NPSBN combine to push the initial operational capability of a small part of the system until five or six years after the adoption of the Act. The final operational capability (FOC) of the NPSBN is not foreseeable at this time because the funding and the funding model simply do not exist. Clearly, FOC is more than ten years away on the current course," said the institute.

And that decade-long process could ultimately cause operational woes. The technological differences between equipment deployed at the start of that 10-year period and equipment deployed at the end could be dramatic, leading to exactly the kinds of public-safety interoperability issues the NPSBN was supposed to eradicate.

The Potomac Institute suggests several alternative routes for FirstNet. For instance, FirstNet could let those jurisdictions that received waivers to use the 700 MHz public safety nework get back to building out their networks without having to get some goofy Special Temporary Authority (STA) that must be renewed every six months.

Another option on the list of possibilities entails working with commercial mobile operators. "FirstNet also could establish the first phase of the NPSBN by simply contracting with wireless carriers to provide a 10x10 Band Class 14 radio access network along their current commercial network lines, with an emphasis on those serving rural areas (or a requirement that some percentage of the commercial network serve rural areas)," said the institute.

The Potomac Institute's report presents a disturbing account of the daunting task ahead. FirstNet's new board will need to do a lot of thinking outside the box if the NPSBN is to become something other than a boondoggle.--Tammy

P.S. Be sure to vote in this week's poll on our home page regarding whether 700 MHz public-safety network waiver recipients should be allowed to restart their build-out efforts.