Seybold's Take: FirstNet board appointees ready for public safety broadband network challenge

Andrew Seybold

At the APCO International annual conference held in Minneapolis Aug. 19-22, the acting Secretary of Commerce, Rebecca Blank, announced the twelve members of the FirstNet board of directors from the public sector. The board is a fifteen-member board with three permanent members representing the federal government.

FirstNet is the board charged with building, operating, and maintaining the new Public Safety Broadband Nationwide network that will be built in 20 MHz (10X10) of prime 700-MHz spectrum. The Public Safety spectrum is adjacent to Verizon's C Block on one side and the 12 MHz of narrowband spectrum already allocated to Public Safety, This is an important and major first step in the creation of this network and marks the true beginning of the process that provides public safety with the spectrum, funding ($7 billion), and national governance for this network.

Public safety was to have had three representatives on the board but was given four, one representing the Police Chiefs, one the National Sheriffs' Association, one for Fire Service, and one for EMS. The rest of the board is made up of industry experts, an ex-mayor, a CIO who worked for two states but is now a federal employee, and seasoned wireless industry and business executives who have been involved in many phases of commercial wireless network development, operation, and maintenance. For a list of the FirstNet board, click here.

The FirstNet board certainly has its work cut out for it. Building a new 700-MHz system coast to coast will be a real challenge, especially since the funding of $7 billion is not enough to build out all 44,000 towers that will be required. However, the law does state that public/private partnerships can be established and the spectrum can be shared on a secondary basis (giving Public Safety full pre-emptive priority). One of the FirstNet board members is the president and CEO of the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative (NRTC). Its members include rural power co-ops and rural telco operators, and since they are non-profit organizations, they are usually well funded. In rural America, this type of partnership would enable the network to be built out at less expense to the Public Safety community. Further, the co-ops could use the spectrum on a secondary basis for smart grid, meter reading, and reselling broadband to their rural customers. By law, the income from this resale must go to FirstNet and could then be used to help fund the monthly operational costs of the network.

This is only one example of the type of impact this network can have on rural America, and others will probably become private partners as well, including the existing wireless network operators. Co-locating the Public Safety equipment on existing commercial towers and existing city and county-owned towers would, again, help reduce the cost of the network as well as provide additional income to the network operators. Further, since the Public Safety LTE network will most likely be reserved for data and video only, the network operators will still be providing secondary voice services to this community and, during the build-out, which is a multi-year process, they will also be providing LTE data and video services. Even after the network is up and operational, there will continue to be a need to use commercial networks for non-mission-critical voice and data activities.

The spectrum is now available, the initial funding is available, and the FirstNet board of directors has been appointed. There is a lot more work to be done, but this is a great start to a network that has been in the making for more than ten years and is overdue. This network will provide Public Safety with the data and video services we all take for granted on our iPhones and Androids, but that Public Safety has never had direct access to except on commercial networks. Obviously, the data and video used by Public Safety must be secure and the network itself must be hardened and built to mission-critical standards that go well beyond the way in which commercial networks are built out today. By making use of private/public partnerships, the cost of the network will be reduced, and in places such as rural America where all of the spectrum may not be needed all of the time, sharing the spectrum with others will enable people to have broadband coverage they would not have had for a very long time to come. Not only is this network a win for Public Safety, it is a win for rural America, existing network operators big and small, vendors, tower leasing companies, installers, systems integrators, and device makers.

Compared to the number of customers on the major commercial networks, the Public Safety community will be relatively small with between two and five million users on this network. They are very important users but there certainly are not enough for equipment vendors to get excited about. However, since the network is on 700 MHz and is an LTE network in most cases, providing equipment for Public Safety based on, but perhaps not identical to commercial equipment, will be less expensive for Public Safety. Today a typical Public Safety voice-only radio costs anywhere from $500 to several thousand for voice and perhaps some very-slow-speed data. This network won't replace the need for these radios for a very long time, but the equipment for use on the Public Safety broadband network will be far less expensive than the existing equipment will, finally, bring Public Safety into the 22nd Century. A win for Public Safety is a win for its private partners and a win for all of us since Public Safety will be equipped with the same tools we use every day and have become accustomed to relying on. A tired old phrase but applicable here, "A win-win-win for all concerned."

In addition to his commercial consulting and education business, Andrew Seybold also serves as Vice-Chairman of the APCO Broadband Committee and is Broadband Communications Advisor to both the National Sheriffs' Association and the International Association of Chiefs of Police.