FirstNet's Swenson gets her chance to bring public safety back into the fold

Tammy Parker, FierceWirelessTech

Two years into its existence, the First Responders Network Authority has undergone a change in leadership, with a former telecom executive taking the reins from another former telecom exec. Sue Swenson, the new chairwoman, has proved a powerful advocate for FirstNet and has also shown--via her lead role in the 700 MHz spectrum-lease negotiations--that she can work with the public-safety community, which still voices serious concerns about the direction that FirstNet is taking.

News that Sam Ginn would exit the FirstNet board's chairmanship was hardly a surprise, especially since Swenson was named vice chairwoman last December, all but signaling Ginn's intention to make an exit once his two-year term at FirstNet ends in August.

Ginn has deftly maneuvered around numerous bumps in the FirstNet road with the cool aplomb of a seasoned executive. But Swenson is in charge now, taking the helm less than a week before the start of the 2014 Public Safety Broadband Stakeholder Meeting in Westminster, Colo. Her keynote address at the event will give Swenson the opportunity to assuage public safety's oft-heard complaints that their concerns about the planned nationwide public-safety broadband network (NPSBN) are not being heard or are outright being ignored.

Earlier this month, the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) issued a report urging that the LTE-based NPSBN be built to public-safety grade standards, meaning it must withstand severe natural and manmade disasters and, if a problem occurs, be capable of quick restoration. This approach appears to preclude much, if any, reliance upon standard, unhardened commercial cellular networks in the FirstNet framework, even though that has at times appeared to be the direction FirstNet was favoring.

"It is generally recognized commercial broadband networks are designed as 'best effort' networks and are more prone to outages during both natural and human caused disasters, power outages, and other events," the report observed, indicating that scenario would be unsatisfactory for the NPSBN.

NPSTC's report aims to establish measurable characteristics that differentiate a mission-critical communications system from a standard or commercial grade network. Though the council acknowledged that not every best practice it recommends for the new network can be followed, NPSTC said the vast majority of its recommendations should be adhered to for the NPSBN to be considered public-safety grade.

"When economic, environmental, and technology tradeoffs need to occur, FirstNet should consult with the user agencies that will be impacted by the tradeoff. These situations should be reflected in the Service Level Agreement (SLA) between FirstNet and the user agencies," the report noted.

The spotlight is now on Swenson as she addresses the needs of public safety and the reality that FirstNet's envisioned network will logically fall short of expectations due to those aforementioned tradeoffs. But if Swenson ensures that discussions are quickly initiated regarding requirements listed in the NPSTC report, that could go a long way toward bringing the first responder community closer to FirstNet and establishing a new level of trust.--Tammy