FirstNet: How many good ideas are too many?

editor's corner

The 2013 Public Safety Broadband Stakeholder Conference brought to light many of the challenges facing the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) and the public-safety community as they try to develop modern broadband communications networks.

Because the conference was held near my home base in the Denver area, I was afforded the opportunity to pick some of the attendees' brains regarding lessons being learned in these early days.

One of the first folks I chatted with was John Baird, director of business development at Raytheon. The company has been working with Adams County, Colo., which was one of seven Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grantees that had their funding--initially granted in 2010--partially suspended by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration last spring over fears their independent public-safety communications projects might not be interoperable with the planned national public-safety broadband network (NPSBN) authorized by Congress in February 2012.

Baird told me Adams County's deployment was nearly 85 percent complete when funding was held up, and it lost access to the 700 MHz spectrum it was expecting to use because the frequencies were transferred to FirstNet. Fortunately, the county took a unique approach in terms of its network business model and leveraged lots of government-owned assets in order to rein in operating expenses. That means Adams County has not needed to maintain lease payments to third parties over the past year for those deployed cell sites.

Charlotte, N.C., another BTOP funding recipient that had been deploying a public-safety network under a different business model, was not so lucky. Charlotte's reliance upon third-party cell sites means it has had to keep up lease payments for them over the past year even though it has been unable to make use of its network, said Baird.

Those types of lessons will likely prove invaluable for the NPSBN. And they show why it is critical for FirstNet to conclude negotiations over 700 MHz spectrum lease agreements with the seven BTOPS and the state of Texas, where Harris County is already operating its public-safety broadband network.

Switching to applications, David Kahn, CEO of Covia Labs, told me FirstNet's goals are much more ambitious than those of commercial mobile network operators.

Carriers can choose to operate as data pipes, relying upon Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) iOS and Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android developers to create mobile apps for their subscribers, he said. However, FirstNet has to not only ensure commonalities in apps, such as enabling universal geographic information system (GIS) functions and nationwide computer-aided dispatch capabilities, but it also has security concerns that commercial operators do not have.

Covia, of course, is hoping it can snag a piece of the FirstNet pie and is pushing its technologies for use in the core security engine and core apps engine that FirstNet General Manager Bill D'Agostino has said he would like to see implemented.

The company has engaged in contracts with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which prompted an interesting discussion point during my chat with Kahn. Why isn't DARPA, with its vast repository of high-tech communications technologies for challenging environments, playing an advisory role at FirstNet? The Department of Homeland Security has a permanent seat on the FirstNet board, but I would suggest that perhaps DARPA should as well.

Also attending the conference were executives from microwave backhaul equipment vendor Aviat Networks. Randy Jenkins, director of business development for the company, told me that unlike the commercial mobile space, where fiber backhaul dominates (at least in the United States), municipalities favor microwave over leased lines.

Not only is there a long-term opex advantage for microwave, but it can be more resilient in the face of natural disasters, as was demonstrated during Hurricane Sandy, he said. Not surprisingly, Aviat wants FirstNet to put microwave at the top of its backhaul technology requirements list.

Tony Ljubicich, Aviat's vice president of sales and services in North America, said in most commercial LTE rollouts the network is mapped out and then backhaul is addressed. However, he suggested that FirstNet should take the opposite approach. "Since backhaul is always the bottleneck, why don't you address that first?" Ljubicich asked.

That approach makes considerable sense when one recalls the Adams County deployment plan. Maybe one of the initial things FirstNet should do is create a database of municipally owned utility and communications sites nationwide where LTE equipment and complementary backhaul might be installed.

Of course, other vendors have completely different ideas regarding how FirstNet should proceed, and that is part of the craziness hounding efforts to create the NPSBN. Sifting through all of the possibilities and figuring out which ones really present the best options is going to be a Herculean task. On a positive note, however, there is a lot of deep and creative thinking going on in the vendor community, and the NPSBN stands to benefit greatly.--Tammy