Lawmakers cite rural, budget concerns in FirstNet House subcommittee hearing

Step by step, the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) is putting its troubled past behind and getting its footing as it seeks to fulfill its mandate to build and operate the first nationwide public safety broadband network (NPSBN).

During a House Communications and Technology subcommittee hearing this week, lawmakers heard testimony from and posed questions to T.J. Kennedy, acting executive director for FirstNet, about progress the organization is making, how it is communicating with states and what rural areas can expect from the project.

Rep. Greg Walden, (R-Ore.), chairman of the subcommittee, said everyone shares the goal of ensuring that the nation's first responders realize the promise of an interoperable, state-of-the-art emergency communications network. Early shortcomings in FirstNet's approach to consultation with states and other interested parties resulted in considerable uncertainty and concern among stakeholders.

But FirstNet has made progress. "With those early missteps behind us, today we look not only at the progress FirstNet has made but also what new challenges lie ahead," he said.

Several lawmakers brought up the rural nature of their states and the need to serve them when larger commercial cellular operators have not been able to do so. Regional and rural operators are expected to play a role in those areas.

Chris Collins, (R-N.Y.), a former county executive of Erie County in New York, said that several years ago, "I went through the whole issue of low band 400 MHz, 800 MHz. I was the one that killed the 800 MHz plan in New York state. When they came to our county, where it had to work as the largest upstate county, in my talking to the volunteer fire folks… First of all, we knew it probably wouldn't work and secondly, we had no money to implement it anyway so I pulled the county out. That cratered the whole thing across New York state."

He encouraged Kennedy to address him as if he were one of the volunteer firefighters. "Talk to me as though I'm this local volunteer fire guy. I just went from this low band to 400 MHz, and it works. It works really, really well. I knew 800 MHz was a disaster. Tell me what my life's going to look like five years from now. Do I have to throw all my radios away? Am I going to go to 700 MHz? Am I going to go to a 4G LTE? Who's going to buy me my equipment?"

Kennedy said that FirstNet wants rural counties to participate in New York state's consultation process with FirstNet, and "get your needs on the table" for the state plan. "Our goal is to work with New York state" to bring forward a plan that has coverage objectives. Every state has a different set of issues, and they all need to be captured in the state plans. If FirstNet provides the coverage at the cost they're willing to pay for, it will supply that, he said.

Collins said some volunteer fire departments are stretched for cash. "There's separate budgets and in some cases no budgets. This all sounds good but as county executive, I needed every one of them to be listening to the same channel. I needed every one of them to be able to respond, which is why we went 400 MHz across the board, no ifs, ands or buts," he said, adding that starting over could be confusing. "One thing I can assure you, New York state doesn't exactly talk to the localities. They may talk to New York City. They don't talk to the other localities. That's what happened with the 800 MHz, which was a debacle."

FirstNet will be judged on whether or not it can provide the requisite level of service and coverage to those areas, Kennedy said. It also will be building an interoperable system that will be interoperable between the different agencies from the beginning.

In a separate event this week in New York City, the Wireless Infrastructure Association urged industry members to educate New York state policymakers and community leaders about the economic, societal and culture benefits that wireless broadband technologies offer. PCIA President Jonathan Adelstein told members of the New York State Wireless Association (NYSWA) that the state's leaders need to expedite the deployment of cutting-edge wireless facilities in rural and urban areas if they want to realize the benefits. Jessica Zufolo, FirstNet's director of federal grants strategy and coordination, also spoke at the NYSWA forum.

Back at the House subcommittee hearing, lawmakers' other questions centered on what happens before states make their decision to opt in or out of the FirstNet system. States are permitted to "opt out" of the FirstNet network deployment and build their own radio access networks (RANs), which include towers and base stations. 

Once FirstNet completes its RFP process, it is required to provide the governor of each state a buildout plan for the state's portion of the nationwide network. The state then has 90 days to determine whether it will participate in FirstNet or build its own RAN. If the state decides to opt out, it must submit its plan to the FCC for approval within 180 days and must demonstrate that the plan will be in compliance with the interoperability requirements developed by the FCC.

Asked about the likely timelines for governors to make their decisions as to whether they will opt out, Kennedy said the anticipated timeline would be late in 2016 to early 2017 when governors would be presented with a state plan. That's when each governor will have the opportunity to opt in or deploy the RAN themselves.

Stu Davis, CIO for the state of Ohio, also presented testimony during the hearing. The FirstNet business model is still undefined and, based on recent discussion at Ohio's state consultation meeting, it appears that it will be defined by the successful bidder through the RFP process, he said. However, asked about FirsetNet's progress overall: "Right now, I think everything seems to be rolling along fairly well," he said.

For more:
- see this Mission Critical article
- see IWCE's Urgent Communications article
- see the webcast

Related articles:
Regional carriers urge FirstNet to 'maximize interoperability'
Senators grill FirstNet's Swenson on rural coverage, hiring process
Lawmakers call for hearing on FirstNet after IG report lists public disclosure concerns

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