FirstNet and the advancement of public safety wireless communications hearing

Published: November 26, 2013

Justice/Public Safety & Homeland Security

On Thursday, November 21, the the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology held a hearing focused on FirstNet and advancements that have been made.

The Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 created FirstNet, an “independent authority” within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), to oversee construction of a national public safety broadband network. Members of the Communications and Technology Subcommittee were present as well as the following witnesses:
1. Sam Ginn, Chairman, First Responder Network Authority
2. David Turetsky, Chief, Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, Federal Communications Commission
3. Stu Davis, State Chief Information Officer, Assistant Director, Ohio Department of Administrative Services
4. Dennis M. Martinez, Chief Technology Officer, RF Communications Division, Harris Corporation
5. Darryl Ackley, Cabinet Secretary, New Mexico Department of Information Technology
6. Dereck Orr, Program Manager, Public Safety Communications Research, Office of Law Enforcement Standards, National Institute of Standards and Technology
In their opening statements, representatives stated that we must move forward in a bipartisan manner for success with FirstNet, and taxpayer dollars must be spent wisely to ensure first responders have an effective and efficient network. The majority of representatives stated that they were pleased with FirstNet board members’ success so far in working to build strong relationships with states. The hearing also addressed concerns related to FirstNet, including how officials would speak about procurement and ethics-related matters, and protecting public interests while avoiding waste, fraud, and abuse.
While there has been significant progress since the subcommittee’s first oversight meeting in March, stakeholders are still wary of cost, coverage, design, and the timing of the network deployment. Concerns were also raised regarding how transparent FirstNet will be with decision making and developing a business plan.
Sam Ginn, chairman of FirstNet, said that in order for a successful network to be enacted, there needs to be a joint effort between FirstNet and states. The ultimate goal is to come up with a system that covers the entire country, and then make sure state systems are interoperable with it. Moving forward, there will be a continued need for greater transparency between the states, government, and FirstNet to ensure a successful network is in place and can be utilized with other systems, such as NG-911, in the future.
The Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) made $382.5 million available in grants to the following geographic areas: Los Angeles, Calif.; San Francisco, Calif.; Adams County, Colo.; Charlotte, N.C.; Mississippi; northern New Jersey; and Albuquerque-Santa Fe, N.M. FirstNet also entered lease agreements with two of the BTOP grant recipients: the state of New Mexico and the Los Angeles Regional Interoperable Communications System Authority (LA-RICS). The two entities have been working with FirstNet to develop a pilot public-safety broadband network in the 700 MHz spectrum. FirstNet intends to use the deployment of these two networks as a test run to provide a backbone for developing a nationwide network.
The New Mexico Department of Information Technology was one of the BTOP recipients and its strategy involves modernizing public safety communications through the following three initiatives: infrastructure, land mobile radios, and broadband. Darryl Ackley, New Mexico’s chief information officer, spoke about how the state and FirstNet agreed upon three key learning conditions: cross-jurisdictional interactions with Harris County, Texas’ Evolved Packet Core (EPC) to support New Mexico’s deployment; deploying long-term evolution (LTE) within the U.S./Mexico border area; and addressing issues that would arise among federal and state organizations. Ackley is pleased with the collaborative work between New Mexico and FirstNet so far. He said that while there will be challenges moving forward, the end goal will provide a more modern public safety landscape.
Stu Davis, Ohio’s state chief information officer and assistant director of the Ohio Department of Administrative Services, addressed concerns with FirstNet. He specifically mentioned FirstNet’s business plan and short- and long-term costs. He said the state needs to have further insight to properly plan future initiatives and it is important for FirstNet to build relationships with states. He also said statewide initiatives such as NG911 should be taken into consideration since some states have mentioned the need to integrate their NG911 system with FirstNet. Though Ginn confirmed that FirstNet will help enable the integration, Davis reiterated the fact that decisions are being made on a state level and he wants to make sure FirstNet initiatives are incorporated.
Analyst’s Take
While there has been significant progress with FirstNet, stakeholders are still wary regarding the business plan as well as how states will work with FirstNet. During a Q-and-A period, Greg Walden, chairman of the communications and technology subcommittee, asked FirstNet members what they plan to do to realize the network. FirstNet chairman Ginn said there needs to be a joint effort between states and FirstNet to ensure successful collaboration, and initiatives should be jointly negotiated so there are no surprises when FirstNet completes the RFP packet and presents it to states. He also said collaboration would take place because FirstNet officers would be hired to work in a respective state, but since the hiring process takes a long time, states need to have patience and work with FirstNet as partners.
It is clear that FirstNet has several hurdles to work through before the next subcommittee hearing. Communication, collaboration, and transparency regarding costs will be paramount to instill confidence with the states. The key will be for FirstNet to be open with its initiatives, similar to how it has been with New Mexico.
Although FirstNet’s efforts are still in the early stages, vendors can begin conversations about these topics with current clients for land mobile radio. It is never too early to begin planning for the future and this would be a prime opportunity for vendors to kick start research efforts in preparation for future large-scale LTE contracts.