FirstNet must act quickly to make the public-safety LTE network a reality

editor's corner

It has been more than a bit discouraging to see how slowly the federal government is moving on getting the nationwide 700 MHz broadband public-safety network built. Back in February, the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 reallocated the 700 MHz D Block--758-763 MHz/788-793 MHz--to the new First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), which was created under the umbrella of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. This was a huge step in getting an interoperable nationwide public-safety network set up.

But progress has stagnated since then, and the issues have gotten convoluted. Though first responders finally got the nationwide 700 MHz D Block allocation they were longing for, the new law allocating the frequencies has since thrown existing plans for other 700 MHz public-safety LTE networks into utter disarray. An obvious sign of trouble occurred last spring, when jurisdictions that received federal funding to roll out networks were told by NTIA to rein in their plans until FirstNet was officially set up and could provide them with specific directions.

Then in late July, the FCC released an order announcing the 21 jurisdictions that received public-safety broadband waivers in May 2010 allowing them to lease 700 MHz spectrum from the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) will see those rights expire on Sept. 2, after which the entities will need to acquire a six-month special temporary authority (STA) from the FCC to continue operating. It looks like only Harris County, Texas, is prepared to operate under those STA rules.

Now NTIA is complaining to the FCC that its order complicates matters, because it only allows an entity with STA operating rights to use the PSST's 700 MHz spectrum and not the newly reallocated D block spectrum. Seriously folks, does the left hand know what the right hand is doing here?

Moreover, there's still the tricky issue of transferring the PSST spectrum to FirstNet, a process for which hasn't been set yet.

Meanwhile, the newly appointed FirstNet board isn't even planning to have its first meeting till September. And, as Urgent Communications recently noted, the applications process for government grants to help state and local jurisdictions roll out the new network will not start till early 2013.

Watching this process unfold is downright painful, and it might even be comical if it all weren't so important. I realize there are steps that must be followed, and that it's terribly important to get everything right when it comes to the nationwide broadband public-safety network. After all, we are talking about enabling crucial first-responder communications. But I can't help fearing the entire process is going to get bogged down even more in the usual D.C. Beltway bickering and politicking.

I thought about all of these things a few weeks ago when I listed to the heart-wrenching dispatch recording from Colorado's Aurora Police Department as officers responded to the Century 16 Theater shooting. You can hear it on YouTube, and the professionalism shown by the first responders to that tragedy is nothing short of stunning.

The dispatcher's and officers' quick assessment of the situation and logical handling of the events as they unfolded were incredibly impressive and served to remind me that our nation's brave and dedicated emergency personnel--and all of our citizens--deserve nothing short of a steadfast effort that gets the national 700 MHz public-safety LTE network up and running as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Now that its board has been selected--with the ever-capable telecom veteran Sam Ginn in charge--it's time for FirstNet to get down to serious business, moving decisively to make this network a reality before any more time is wasted.--Tammy

P.S. FierceBroadbandWireless will not publish on Monday, Sept. 3, in honor of the U.S. Labor Day holiday, but we'll be back in action the following day. Have a wonderful end-of-summer weekend.