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FirstNet vexed by shifts in public-safety LTE standards-setting

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WESTMINSTER, Colo.--A brewing controversy over technical standards and hiring issues are some of the latest bugaboos haunting the First Responders Network Authority (FirstNet) as it crafts plans for the national public-safety broadband network (NPSBN).

Kevin McGinnis FirstNet board

McGinnis

During board committee meetings here, held June 2 prior to the annual PSCR Public Safety Broadband Stakeholder meeting, FirstNet board member Kevin McGinnis noted that the mission of enabling mission-critical voice communications over LTE is progressing, as the 3GPP standards body moves ahead on technological specifications for the service as part of the group's work on Releases 12 and 13.

However, McGinnis, commenting during the FirstNet Technology Committee meeting, expressed displeasure at the fact that "certain vendors" are attempting to shift LTE public-safety standardization out of 3GPP and into the Open Mobile Alliance (OMA).

After the meeting, McGinnis told IWCE's Urgent Communications that he did not know which vendors are behind the move, but he has been told that they aim to move proceedings "to a standards body where those vendors presumably have more influence."

He called the move "distracting," and said it detracts from the progress that has been made within 3GPP.

FirstNet board member Craig Farrill also addressed the topic during FirstNet's full board meeting on June 3, which was also held at the Westin Westminster. "On the standards side, our work in 3GPP is really critical to what's happening here at FirstNet. The need to get to direct mode and mission-critical voice through that is a significant and important project for us at FirstNet. So we want you all to hear that clearly from us," he said.

OMA announced in January that it was beginning work on public-safety standards. The group contends its POC (push-to-talk over cellular) enabler "should serve as a baseline" for public-safety push-to-talk (PTT) use cases. OMA expects to release version 1.0 of its Push-to-Communicate for Public Safety (PCPS) spec in the fourth quarter.

On a related front, last month the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau sent letters to both 3GPP's Radio Access Network Committee and OMA's Location Working Group, asking them to continue their ongoing collaboration to ensure "the prioritization and expeditious completion of work and study items related to location determination technologies that will enhance public safety response to wireless calls to emergency call centers."

Meanwhile, FirstNet is struggling to hire the staff that it needs. Frank Freeman, chief administrative officer, said FirstNet has asked the Office of Personnel  Management (OPM) for direct hiring authority to bring on 21 technical positions and 56 outreach and compensation positions.

He said leaders from the Department of Commerce and FirstNet have been meeting with OPM leadership "to express the importance of these critical positions in doing our mission and tried to describe to them what's unique about our position and why the traditional hiring process cannot accommodate us."

Board member and Acting General Manager TJ Kennedy said the technical positions are for experts with LTE experience who are "hard to find and hard to hire into the federal government." On the outreach side, FirstNet is seeking individuals with hands-on, public-safety skillsets and technology backgrounds.

FirstNet is awaiting a final opinion from OPM, but Freeman said OPM is leaning toward giving FirstNet Schedule A authority rather than direct hiring authority. Both would enable hiring in a non-competitive environment, but Schedule A authority has more limitations attached to it. Further, OPM will likely grant that Schedule A authority only to some of the positions FirstNet has requested.

New FirstNet CTO Ali Afrashteh announced that he has a "20-man" team of staff and contractors. He also said Jeff Bratcher has accepted the position of deputy CTO. Bratcher, who came from the Institute of Telecommunications Sciences (ITS), had been the acting deputy CTO since December 2013.

FirstNet also announced that it has engaged an outside search firm to help it find a new general manager to fill the vacancy left by Bill D'Agostino's recent departure.

Other tidbits from the FirstNet meetings include the fact that Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) funds recipient Adams County, Colo.--which has agreed to a FirstNet 700 MHz spectrum lease--has four LTE sites up and will conduct an invitation-only demo on July 6. AdComm expects to have all of its LTE sites up by end of year and will officially launch in first half of 2015.

However, Harris County, Texas, which is operating 14 LTE sites and an evolved packet core (EPC), still has not signed a 700 MHz lease pact with FirstNet.

FirstNet's June 3 board meeting was a first in that it was conducted from a stage in a ballroom with a live audience rather than in a private room where the board was sequestered from the public, as has been done at previous meetings. During those earlier meetings, even when they were held at a public-safety event where the board and event attendees occupied the same building, attendees could only view the meetings on video in a separate room.

"I hope this was a better format for you in terms of being with us in the same room," newly appointed FirstNet Chairwoman Sue Swenson told attendees toward the end of the meeting. She noted that the FirstNet board is moving its meetings to a quarterly schedule.

For more:
- see this FirstNet release, this release and this release
- see this IWCE's Urgent Communications article
- see this FCC notice
- see this MissionCritical Communications article

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