FirstNet’s deployment of an interoperable National Public Safety Broadband Network for first responders is an unprecedented undertaking, CEO Michael Poth testified last week on Capitol Hill.
“Every step forward presents new challenges and requires identification of innovative solutions,” Poth told members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee’s subcommittee on communications, technology, innovation and the Internet.
“The past three years,” Poth said, “have involved hundreds of thousands of working hours to solve the various challenges faced by FirstNet,” the independent authority within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration established by Congress in 2012 to provide this first-of-its-kind network in the United States.
And the challenges continue to surface — several addressed last week in a FirstNet progress report and recommendations from the U.S. Government Accountability Office and another raised again Monday in a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) filing.
Specifically, the FCC has been asked to confirm whether states that opt out of FirstNet’s network plan have the same flexibility as FirstNet to select partners for deploying and operating their own similar network. States and companies alike want to ensure that such flexibility includes the state’s and its partner’s authority to build and operate their own network core – which includes data centers and systems used to interconnect users – as long as it’s interoperable with FirstNet’s nationwide network.
The FCC initially was asked to decide the issue last month when the commission approved FirstNet’s opt-out procedures, but so far has said the issue is outside its statutory review responsibility, although it may consider certain qualified, specific alternative state plans.
Nevertheless, company executives and others testified that considerable progress is being made by FirstNet and AT&T Inc., contracted to build and manage the network they say will transform how the nation’s fire, police, EMS and other public safety personnel communicate and share information.
Their claims are supported by New Jersey’s decision on Tuesday to opt-in to the network. Gov. Chris Christie said the state’s first responder subscribers will have immediate access and priority to voice and data across the existing nationwide AT&T LTE network. And AT&T expects to provide dedicated access to a pre-emption feature for primary FirstNet users by year-end.
Individual state plans — which also include those for some U.S. territories — were delivered in June by FirstNet and AT&T describing how AT&T plans to build and maintain each state’s radio access network (RAN). States have until August 4 to review and file comments regarding their plans and then FirstNet has up to 45 days to review comments and respond. When the review period ends, governors then have 90 days to decide whether to opt in/opt out to the FirstNet-AT&T network.
Virginia — the first yes state — “did not arrive at the decision to opt-in haphazardly,” testified Curtis Brown, deputy secretary of homeland security and public safety for the Commonwealth of Virginia, during last week’s Senate subcommittee hearing.
Virginia undertook a coordinated and collaborative approach with local public safety representatives to make a decision that Brown said was informed by subject-matter experts and all-hazard emergency responders who work on the front lines.
At the same time, the State and Local Implementation Grant Program enabled Virginia to hold more than 60 state, regional and local “engagements” with stakeholders “to make sure they are informed and involved in the process,” he testified. The meetings helped ensure state and local officials outside of public safety understood the role of FirstNet and highlighted certain aspects of the network project, such as rural coverage and the construction timeline, Brown said.
“Opting-in costs the Commonwealth nothing. Priority access on the network comes at no additional financial cost to subscriber nor to the Commonwealth. Opting-in does not commit the Commonwealth to any role in the FirstNet buildout. FirstNet and AT&T will build, operate, and maintain the Commonwealth’s portion of the [network] at no cost to Virginia,” said Brown.
To date, five other states besides New Jersey have opted in: Arkansas, Virginia, Kentucky, Wyoming and Iowa. Several states and Washington, D.C., have completed the review phase and are currently in the 90-day window deciding on whether to opt in/opt out: Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maryland and Delaware. And FirstNet reports that a total of 56 individual state plans have been released and as of last week, the FirstNet-AT&T team has conducted in-person consultations with 48 states and territories.
Company execs told lawmakers they expect the opt in/opt out decisions to be completed in mid to late December.
First responder traffic will operate on an encrypted wireless network and cybersecurity is being integrated into the devices and applications first responders will use for the network, Chris Sambar, an AT&T senior vice president, testified during the Senate subcommittee hearing last week.
First responders will get their applications from a FirstNet app store where they’ll be “vetted for security and functionality,” Sambar said.
He added that volunteer public-safety officers whose credentials are verified and who subscribe to FirstNet using a bring-your-own-device option will pay much cheaper prices compared to commercial wireless offerings.
“So regardless of whether you’re a volunteer, whether your agency provides you with a device, or you bring your own device, they will have access to the FirstNet network,” Sambar told subcommittee members.
Additionally, the FirstNet-AT&T team plans enhanced communication capabilities for the network, like wearable sensors and cameras for police and firefighters that deliver real-time images of events, he said.
“Imagine camera-equipped drones and robots delivering images” of crimes, fires or floods, Sambar said. “Solutions like these could one day enhance the capabilities of first responders.”
There’s also a plan to provide broadband coverage in rural areas and other sites where it’s lacking via 72 AT&T cell tower trucks that will be deployed to disaster-stricken areas all over the United States.
“We can drive one of these trucks into that rural area and pop up an antenna to create a cell phone connection and a broadband connection for first responders where they would have priority access to it,” Sambar said.
Subcommittee Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., hailed the progress made thus far toward making a network that will improve coordination among first responders across multiple jurisdictions and enhance how quickly they can provide emergency services.
“By any estimation, the development of this nationwide public safety broadband network is a challenge,” Wicker acknowledged. “But it’s an important endeavor to ensure that first responders can fulfill their daily mission to save lives.”