By Jeff Johnson
I left home on May 14 and spent seven weeks on the road for FirstNet. Along the way, I have hit five cities out of our six-stop tour to host regional meetings with every state and territory that will be part of FirstNet. We started in Washington, D.C., during Police Week, and then went on to Denver, San Francisco, St. Louis, Boston and Memphis.
We spent a day and a half in each place with 80 to 90 governor-designated volunteers having a dialog about FirstNet, the first nationwide high-speed broadband wireless network dedicated to public safety. We talked about their respective network requirements, priorities and concerns — and boy, are they different. Network designers will have to contend with diverse topographies and needs, from roads closed eight months of the year in Alaska, to waterways between islands in Hawaii and American Samoa, to the overload in Kentucky during every college football and basketball game.
We assured workshop participants that FirstNet hasn’t designed the network yet. We can’t until we’ve consulted with states, territories and tribes to really understand their unique needs. In fact, Craig Farrill, acting CTO for FirstNet, had the opportunity to share our current thinking about building a public-safety broadband network that is reliable, secure, resilient, hardened and ubiquitous — a first of its kind. Talk about inspiration for a guy like Farrill, who’s spent 30 years building commercial networks worldwide.
During the workshops, we also took the opportunity to bring a dose of reality to a few misperceptions that have been fueled by the rumor mill. Some in the public-safety community have been under the mistaken impression that FirstNet will completely control the network. It’s true that FirstNet will control the nationwide core portion, but when it comes to who gets access, what applications they can use or who has priority during incidents with multiple responders, the local incident commander will take charge. Public safety still will manage devices and talk groups. It has to work that way, and the software-based LTE technology makes that possible.
We also discussed the cost of the network. So, what will it cost to build and operate this network? Is $7 billion enough? We don’t know, but that’s our working assumption. FirstNet has to create a business model that ensures the network is self-sustaining. We will charge fees to users to lease our spectrum, connect to our core and use our services. We plan to leverage as many existing state and federal assets as we can to keep costs down. There are more than 400,000 commercial and land-mobile-radio sites as well as infrastructure from power companies and transportation networks that potentially can be used to build our new network. Our other ace in the hole is to create public/private partnerships to help our dollars go farther.
Will it be possible for states to use FirstNet spectrum to generate revenue? No. The law that created FirstNet requires all fees collected from the use of FirstNet spectrum to be reinvested to build, operate, maintain and improve the network. That said, if states contribute assets to FirstNet, the value of those assets will be factored into our relationship.
The other burning question is when will FirstNet replace LMR? FirstNet can’t replace LMR until mission-critical voice for LTE is available. There’s no point guessing when that will happen. We’re still developing standards. We do know that FirstNet will launch with commercial grade voice and mission-critical data services. Users will be able to send and receive video, images and text. They will have a more reliable and faster network for getting access to data and applications they need to do their jobs. Push-to-talk capability is in our launch plan, too.
Practically speaking, FirstNet won’t replace LMR until users trust the network and see the value. At the end of the day, it’s really about adoption. Wouldn’t a combined pager and data device be compelling to volunteer firefighters? We want to create a moral imperative to use FirstNet. If we help you get better situational awareness and find injured firefighters in burning buildings faster to save lives, we believe public safety will switch.
Jeff Johnson is a FirstNet board member. Johnson also is the retired CEO of the Western Fire Chiefs Association, former chair of the Oregon State Interoperability Council and chief/CEO of Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue for 15 years. He is active nationally on public safety communications matters and has served on the(IAFC) Board of Directors as resident and chairman.