FirstNet ready to resume early public-safety LTE projects

BOULDER, Colo.--At its third public meeting, the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) board voted unanimously to start a process that could enable seven public-safety jurisdictions to resume LTE network deployments they were forced to halt last spring. The board also announced a number of outreach efforts, which could counter criticism that it is being elitist and secretive about its work on the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN).

The seven Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grantees 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 NPSBN authorized by Congress in February 2012.

All seven grantees have shown interest in moving ahead with their LTE networks, said Sue Swenson, FirstNet Board member and leader of its BTOP working group. She made her comments during the FirstNet board meeting, held here at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

The seven jurisdictions include Adams County, Colo.; Charlotte, N.C.; Los Angeles Regional Interoperability Communications Systems (LA-RICS) authority; the state of Mississippi; Motorola Solutions for California's Bay Area Urban Areas Securities Initiative (UASI); the state of New Jersey; plus the state of New Mexico, according to Mission Critical Communications.

Those jurisdictions were expected to use 10 MHz of Band 14 700 MHz spectrum that was previously licensed to the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST). The spectrum has since been transferred to FirstNet, along with the 10 MHz D Block reallocated for the NPSBN via the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, which also created FirstNet to build and oversee that network.

Swenson will negotiate terms and conditions with each BTOP grantee to enable them to proceed on their LTE networks in collaboration with FirstNet. The grantees would be able to lease access to all of FirstNet's spectrum and would potentially regain their BTOP funding, which totaled $380 million for all seven jurisdictions. However, NTIA, which oversees FirstNet, will have the final say on whether lifting a particular grant suspension would be a prudent use of taxpayer funds.

Larry Strickling, NTIA assistant secretary, said the BTOP projects must comply with two conditions: The grant money will remain in the communities that received the grant, and the grant dollars will be spent on facilities and equipment that can be incorporated into FirstNet's nationwide network or that will yield valuable data and information to guide FirstNet.

The board envisions using the seven networks as test beds for the NPSBN, into which they will be incorporated.

Several FirstNet board members pointed out during the meeting that their agency is quite nascent and has been developing its blueprints with virtually no staff. That has hampered FirstNet's outreach efforts, frustrating the public-safety community as well as industry vendors.

Answering critics, board member Jeff Johnson, who has been working as the group's outreach officer, said, "We were careful not to communicate before we had something to communicate."

He said FirstNet's top priority is to work with governors of states and territories as required by the law. FirstNet intends to conduct six regional meetings in coming months, so it can interact with governors, states and territories, he said. FirstNet will also engage the public-safety community at conventions and workshops and through trade associations and unions.

The agency further pledged to initiate a plan for engaging vendors, starting next quarter. Among other things, it will hold quarterly vendor forums. "There are a lot of folks in the vendor community that have a meaningful story to tell us," said Johnson. "We are now in a phase where we can begin to open our ears."

A business plan as well as technical and operations plans will be prepared for FirstNet's April board meeting. The agency will ask the vendor community to step in "once we have the system architected," said board Chairman Sam Ginn.

In addition, FirstNet is building a library of public-safety applications. It expects to conduct a hackathon next quarter to encourage more app development.

Johnson said FirstNet will also start developing agency branding, including a logo, which will "make the FirstNet brand recognizable."

According to Ginn, FirstNet hopes to get a senior management team in place quickly to free board members from being part of FirstNet's operational management. A general manager could be hired within the next 30 days.

Though the NPSBN will be nationwide in scope, it will be overseen by "local public service entities controlling their own destiny," he said.

Board member Craig Farrill, who has basically been acting as FirstNet's general manager, cited five target deliverables for NPSBN: Reliability exceeding that of commercial networks; coverage of every square meter of the United States; the ability to meet and exceed public safety's requirements; service whose cost is at or below commercial rates; and early availability of service, which means not spending six or seven years on starting up the network.

For more:
- see this FirstNet release
- see this NTIA statement
- see this FirstNet statement, this statement and this statement
- see this Broadcasting & Cable article
- see this Mission Critical Communications article
- see this Urgent Communications article

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