Like all disasters, Hurricane Sandy underscored how important robust public safety communications robust are. But some states fear their interoperable networks will be inhibited by the federal initiative to develop a single, nationwide architecture.

Their disquiet is evident in comments regarding the proposed system, which was unveiled at the first meeting of FirstNet, the 15-member board created by the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 to disperse $7 billion for a nationwide public safety broadband network. While states can choose not to use the national system, opting out is complicated and, theoretically, not even possible until FirstNet completes the request for proposals process in 2015 or 2016 (or later).

In the meantime, many communities have begun building networks of their own using Broadband Technology Opportunity Program grants from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) — the same agency overseeing the national interoperability initiative — since 2010.

Beneficiaries include Wisconsin’s Chippewa Valley, which received $14 million to deploy public and private fiber and interoperable WiFi and WiMax for the City of Eau Claire, Chippewa County, and parts of Dunn and Clark Counties. Eau Claire Information Services Manager John LeBrun says the communities’ public works departments are heavily involved in planning and implementation because they maintain the assets, such as 14 water towers that will house radio antennas, and control the rights of way in which fiber optic cable is laid.

Motorola kicked in $21 million of the $50 million that San Francisco’s Bay Area Regional Interoperable Communications Systems Authority (BayRICS) is investing to develop BayWEB.

“There’s a big opportunity for public works once the network’s operational,” says BayRICS Interim General Manager Barry Fraser. “Fast data speeds are ideal for sending maps and data files to field workers.” But while site identification and network design are done, everything else is at a standstill. That’s because NTIA suspended the grant program in May to ensure interoperability with the eventual national system.

The question is whether such local efforts should proceed in the interim. Although the law lets states opt out of the national system, a September 2012 Potomac Institute for Policy Studies report says the likelihood of getting federal approval is “the statutory equivalent of ... obtaining the broom of the Wicked Witch of the West: nearly impossible and fraught with risk.”

In addition, states that do participate in the national network may have to play second fiddle to wireless service providers. The public sector won one battle when Congress rejected the industry’s bid to have the “D” block of radio spectrum auctioned to providers so they could create the national system, giving the spectrum to first responders instead. Even so, the private sector may have won the war. Although a final decision hasn’t been made, FirstNet seems to be leaning toward a wireless-company-run network.

“State, local, tribal, and public safety agencies expected a network design process that would be collaborative and public safety-centric, and that numerous solutions would be presented, analyzed, and debated in a collaborative, creative process to produce the best result,” says Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles Executive Director Julie Jones. “Instead, a single architecture was presented that bears a striking resemblance to the original concept favored by the wireless service providers. It included little to no input from state and local stakeholders.”

Stephen Barlas is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer who covers regulatory issues, with a special emphasis on EPA.