Pilot project in central Minnesota strives to set model for FirstNet

One of the big concerns about the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) is not only how a nationwide broadband network for public safety will be created but how it will be sustained with funding. A group in central Minnesota hopes to show that cooperation between the private and public sectors can work to support public safety.

The pilot project involves the State of Minnesota, Great River Energy, Motorola, NewCore Wireless, Central Transport Group, the City of Elk River, Tessco and CommScope. Private-sector partners donated equipment, tower space, technical services and carrier services at no cost to the government.


"Our project reached out into the private sector, so we wanted to be able to demonstrate that if the FirstNet network is to be built and operated, there will have to be a financial budget put in place that allows that system to operate, and by just putting public safety devices on that network, it's going to be hard to generate enough revenue to pay for capital and operating expenses," explained Albert Kangas, GM and COO of NewCore Wireless, in an interview with FierceWirelessTech.

One of the ideas for supporting FirstNet involves the private sector purchasing bandwidth on the network, but those users would be pre-empted by first responders when they need it. "So it's finding that private sector use that fits in with the mission of FirstNet," as well as being able to fund the project.

NewCore Wireless already had a relationship with Great River Energy, a Minnesota-based utility company that is primarily owned by cooperative electric companies. "They had a need to be able to do monitoring of their substations throughout the state, "but they didn't have viable spectrum, he said.

While the utility company had a need for the FirstNet spectrum, the city of Elk River, which has a volunteer fire department, needed it as well. Elk River is north of Minneapolis and it just so happens that Great River Energy, which is headquartered in Maple Grove, Minn., has facilities there.

The partners involved in the Minnesota project--and this may be the most important part, Kangas said--were genuinely interested in working together; they weren't pushed to the table. "This is a zero-cost effort from a taxpayer point of view," he said, "so we're pretty proud of that."

With the Elk River project, the goal is to be able to provide additional knowledge to the state of Minnesota so it can make a more educated decision on how it wants to move forward. Pilot project organizers say Minnesota is in a unique situation compared to other states because it has a robust statewide public safety trunked radio network deployed that provides two-way voice services to most public safety personnel in the state.

"Part of the findings we're hoping to [show] is that with this private/public partnership, there can be an understanding in that there's a certain amount or a percentage of revenue that could come from the private sector to help fund this project," Kangas said, rather than it being entirely publicly used and operated.

"We're here to show that it could be done and demonstrate that if they went down that path, whether they opted in or opted out, there's an opportunity for that private side to contribute to the revenue side," he said.

In her keynote at the Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR) Program Public Safety Broadband Stakeholder meeting in San Diego last week, FirstNet Chairwoman Sue Swenson said the focus in the year ahead will include expanded outreach to key constituencies, including states' governors and their staffs, attorney generals, CIOs and others.

In April, Swenson told IWCE's Urgent Communications that "a huge lesson" was learned from the Los Angeles Regional Interoperable Communications System (LA-RICS) public-safety LTE deployment, which was halted for a period after criticisms about how it was being built. Much of the funding for that project came from a $154.6 million federal Broadband Technology Opportunities Program grant, which was enabled by legislation passed in 2009.

In an interview with IWCE's Urgent Communications last week, Swenson said FirstNet needs to conduct its operations with the same urgency as the first responders it intends to serve, rather than like a slow-moving federal entity. FirstNet was created within the purview of the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).

Swenson, a past president of Leap Wireless International and Cellular One, ran engineering and operations for a time at T-Mobile USA and if there was a network failure, it was "all hands on deck," even in the middle of the night.

"We're creating an organization that is focused on public safety and serving them, and I think that's a message that we really have get out. Forget the fact that [FirstNet is] ensconced in this federal agency. We can choose to create a different culture and a different mindset about how we're serving this community," she told the publication.

"I recognize that we have a lot of barriers we have to work though, but we don't take 'no' for an answer. That's our culture, and we break a lot of glass, because we have to."

For more:
- see IWCE's Urgent Communications article

Related articles:
Wireless carriers may hesitate to partner with FirstNet, analysts say
FirstNet deems 'Industry Day' a success as financial challenges loom
NTIA suspends funds for Los Angeles' public-safety LTE network
Regional carriers urge FirstNet to 'maximize interoperability'
Senators grill FirstNet's Swenson on rural coverage, hiring process

Article updated June 9 to correct the location of Great River Energy's headquarters.