Directline: Next generation 4G public safety network, called FirstNet, still in planning stage

9:50 am | September 24, 2012

Plans are under way to establish a congressionally-mandated 4G nationwide wireless broadband network, called FirstNet that enables police, firefighters, emergency services personnel, and others in public safety to seamlessly communicate between agencies and across geographies, regardless of devices, to improve response time, keep communities safe, and save lives.

Photo by Brandon Hicks
Carter County Emergency Management Director Andrew Worley, pictured above, relies on his
two-way radio to communicate to the 911 communications center and to emergency services

The Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, signed into law in February 2012, created FirstNet, an independent authority within the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration. The NTIA will oversee the administration and development of a nationwide public safety broadband network.NTIA has set aside $135 million in grant money to help state and local governments get through the planning stages of the nationwide project. Many state and local governments are looking to the federal government for guidance as a national PSBN begins to take shape. Regional planning will cross state lines.

The FCC released a report and order Sept. 7, which allocated the 758-769 MHz and 788-799 MHz bands for use by the First Responder Network Authority to deploy a nationwide public safety broadband network as prescribed by statute.

The Public Safety Spectrum Act directs FirstNet to oversee the construction and operation of this network as licensee of both the “existing public safety broadband spectrum” (763-769/793-799 MHz) and the spectrally adjacent “700 MHz D Block spectrum” (758-763/788-793 MHz). The Act directs the FCC to reallocate the D Block for public safety services.

No timetable has been set, according to Col. Tracy Trott of the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security. “FirstNet is very interested in regional plans and partnerships to keep equipment costs down and provide better service. There has been no definite estimate on cost. Each state will be expected to provide some matching money or assets such as existing infrastructure. The federal legislation committed $7 billion, but only $2 billion has been allocated at this point,” Trott said.There will be many state and local agencies in Tennessee involved with the FirstNet D-Block initiative, ranging from Safety and Homeland Security, Correction, Finance and Administration (Office of Information Resources), TEMA, and local government officials (emergency management agencies, etc.), according to Trott.

It is expected that a phased process will occur but the framework of that has not been discussed. “That would be part of a statewide plan when it is formulated. Although the criteria has not been established or discussed at this point all those factors will be considered,” Trott added.

Many state and local governments have been waiting for the development of a standardized, interoperable communications network since the late 1990s when Congress ordered the FCC to set aside 700 MHz spectrum for public safety. As plans for the PSBN are developed, governments report the development of a nationwide network is a difficult project given their limited budgets.

When NTIA asked governments to identify barriers that would prevent them from collecting data on assets and equipment that could be used as part of the PSBN, many cited “limited staff and resources” and the “need to explore legal issues surrounding system development,” according to a published report in the Federal Register on Aug. 21, 2012.

According to NTIA, grants for planning the development of PSBN will be distributed to the 56 states and territories based on a combination of factors that could include the state-recommended factors of population, land mass, geography and topography, risk threat, and expected level of effort. Governments in rural areas voiced concerns that a one-size-fits-all approach to a PSBN funding allocation would marginalize efforts in rural areas due to the unique requirements there.

The NTIA said it intends to avoid a pure population-based approach and would take all relevant factors into consideration to ensure rural areas receive fair treatment. Funding will be available for initial planning but will not be eligible for construction and development, according to “Government Technology,” August 2012, edition, (www.govtech. com/public-safety/National-Public-Safety-Network-135-Million- Set-For-Planning.html.)

Congress directed FirstNet have a 15-member board of directors, with the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Attorney General, and the Director of the Office of Management and Budget to be permanent members of the Board. On Aug. 20, 2012, the remaining members of the board were appointed by Acting U.S. Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank

While two municipalities, Harris County and Charlotte, N.C., have met interoperability requirements and have been given the go-ahead by the FCC to begin operating their public safety networks, many others await NTIA standards on data collection to begin the inventory process.

Meanwhile, it remains to be seen how and when FirstNet will assist emergency responders in serving the 13, 757 residents of the city of Elizabethton and the 57, 358 residents of Carter County who live within the 348 square mile area of Carter County.


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