Earlier this week I attended the Broadband US TV webcast on Spectrum Provisions of Tax Relief Act — Meaning, Impacts and Timing. It was interesting and very wonky, and I mean that in a good way. (You can access the archive online.) I thought I’d focus on gleaning what I could at a high level about FirstNet from the session, maybe include a little outside research and pass on what I could about the FCC Public Safety plan – especially in terms of FirstNet. I am happy to have anyone more knowledgeable about the Public Safety telecommunications plans chime in!
In February, The Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 was signed into law. It included a section that opened the door to the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet).
Title VI – Public Safety Communications and Electromagnetic Spectrum Auctions
Sec. 6101-6703 – Spectrum Auction. This provision grants the FCC the authority to hold voluntary incentive auctions, allocates necessary spectrum for a nationwide interoperable broadband network for first responders, provides $7 billion for public safety broadband network build out, and provides up to $1.75 billion for relocation costs for broadcasters. This provision is estimated to raise $15 billion over the next eleven years.
The FirstNet plan is to build a broadband network for police, firefighters, emergency medical service professionals, and other public safety officials. FirstNet is really just getting going – but there are some plans. First plan is for FirstNet to work with state, local and tribal governments. A goal is to create an interoperable, cohesive, countrywide network. That being said, states can opt-out of FirstNet. Apparently the plan (and I’m gleaning this from the webcast) is for FirstNet to come to the states with an assessment of what the state has and what they need. And RFP will be created from these assessments.
The webcast included folks from all corners of the project (commercial, utilities, local governments (well NATAO – the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors). It was nice to hear each perspective. The need for a Public Safety Net was emphasized. I think many of us have heard the stories of different branches of first responders and/or first responders from different areas running into troubles communicating with each other because of technology. So change seemed to be welcome across the board – especially change that meant interoperability!
Sustainable was another theme. One thing that I always remember from the 700 Mhz Auctions in 2008 was that the Public Safety spectrum was the one auction that did not meet its minimum. No one wanted to build the public safety network back then. So what’s changed? I think it’s the greater opportunity for corporate carriers to ride on the network and the opportunities for commercial providers to take advantage of network sharing and roaming.
If sustainability is an issue, it makes sense to get the carriers involved. But I think it’s important to maintain an open source sort of network. One of the issues noted in the webcast was the failure of the current network is the proprietary nature of some many (or many portions) of the public safety network. Another point made by the utilities and local governments is that they have a lot of infrastructure in place already, suggesting that maybe that could help defray costs to build.
It sounds as if network will be 4G LTE. (I guess that would be more meaningful to be if there more stringent standards on what that meant.) One inherent issue they mentioned in the webcast was lack of voice capabilities on 4G LTE. However there is a budget for NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) to develop a solution and until there’s a solution, t-band spectrum (for voice) could be made available. (I should say someone asked about that – and the answer was that t-band availability would depend on NIST developments.)
So there’s movement forward. Some of the budget and spectrum are apparently still up in the air and will be based on the reverse auctions that are planned. (There is up to $7.3 billion in funding for network from future FCC incentive auctions but the NTIA can borrow $2 billion up front.) Also there’s a lot of discussion on who will be selected for the various FirstNet boards. With $7 billion dollars at stake and so many stakeholders in the game, those decisions will be critical to how FirstNet continues to move forward.
There are a couple other issues that I find intriguing – but will have to wait for another day: Text-to-911 and Commercial Mobile Alert System, which sounds like tapping into commercial cell phone carriers to broadcast “emergency broadcast system” type messages. (I think most readers will remember watching those as kids when the remote control was maybe a slow younger sibling.) I think the idea of “delivering geographically-targeted alerts to wireless consumers” could be lifesaving – but also opens the door to a lot of privacy concerns.