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The First Responders Network Authority (FirstNet) has $115 million for state planning grants, but no one knows how local public works operations would apply for funding to offset any costs related to the deployment of a new national public safety broadband network. Photo: Chris Mansfield | iStockphoto.com

By Steve Barlas

The interoperable public safety broadband network being set up within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration may include city, county, and state public works operations. But it's far from guaranteed.

Very little, in fact, has been settled with regard to how the First Responders Network Authority (FirstNet) will operate. A 15-person board will run the system, three of them top federal officials (Secretary of Homeland Security, Attorney General, and Director of the Office of Management and Budget) and the rest appointed by the Commerce Secretary. Even if the board begins functioning as scheduled in August, it'll take a year or so to work out who can access the 20 megaherz (MHz) in the D Block band spectrum that Congress set aside for this new communications system.

Background

The Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 that Congress passed in February requires the Federal Communications Commission to auction off the unused spectrum in the 700-MHz D Block band and use $7 billion to fund construction of the FirstNet infrastructure, which will consist of new and existing cell towers and maybe some fiber and microwave connections. Because the money won't be immediately available, the legislation allows FirstNet to borrow $2 billion from the U.S. Treasury for immediate start-up needs.

Congress created FirstNet because police departments rely principally on two-way voice radios, an extremely limited technology that can't exchange electronic data or video. Moreover, disparate spectrum and aging technologies prevent first responders from attaining truly nationwide seamless interoperable communications. Broadband on the 700-MHz band spectrum will allow seamless interoperability on all levels: local, state, and federal.

The bottom line

Whether your operation will have access to FirstNet spectrum is unanswerable this early in the game. “But I believe that's the correct approach and a good idea; that is, to broaden participation beyond first responders to critical infrastructure, transportation, utility, and public works departments,” says Harlin McEwen. As chair of the International Association of Chiefs of Police Communications & Technology Committee, he had considerable input into fashioning the FirstNet legislation.

“Police, fire, and emergency medical services will manage the resource,” he says. “They must have access to the necessary bandwidth. It only makes sense that other agencies that support those kinds of incidents somehow be included in the plan. But it's too early to know.”

One reason it's too early to tell is that the legislation lets states submit a deployment proposal that would have to meet federal architecture and technical standards. This “opt-out” provision probably was inserted out of deference to the wishes of the National Governors Association, which in a letter to members of Congress as the bill's final version was gelling said: “Restricting a state's ability to determine network subscribers could have a detrimental impact on the success of the network and its long-term sustainability.”

In terms of network infrastructure, the legislation calls for a core network and a radio-access network. The first consists of regional and national and the like, which provide connectivity between the radio-access network and the public Internet or public switched network, or both. The radio-access network encompasses the cell site equipment, antennas, and back-haul equipment.

Asked whether city and county facilities or property could be used to build this infrastructure, Ed McFadden, executive director, External Communications at Verizon, says what everyone else seems to be saying: “No one knows.”

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

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