Initially established in 2002 as part of the US Government’s response to the 9/11 disaster, FirstNet was initiated with the aim of creating a nationwide network for public safety organisations. The concept was that federal funds would be made available to create this national, broadband network for use by all public safety organisations.
However, it is clear that the business model will not be so simple because the $7bn currently available to the project will not be enough to build a network exclusively for public safety organisations.
‘Under the law that created FirstNet in 2002 there is money for FirstNet’s use available,’ explains Donald Brittingham, the vice president of public safety policy at Verizon Communications, who points out $2bn of the $7bn is available now.
Brittingham is also vice chair of iCERT, the US Industry Council for Emergency Response Technologies. He adds: ‘The remainder will be generated through auction of other spectrum licences and most people expect the totality of these auctions will generate enough money to provide the $7bn to FirstNet but exactly when the money will be available isn’t clear.’
Brittingham says, alongside the money, FirstNet’s key advantage is the spectrum the government has made available to it. ‘In addition to the cash, the spectrum is the biggest asset,’ he confirms. ‘It has 20MHz of 10x10 spectrum in the 700MHz band and that’s obviously very good spectrum, particularly in rural areas where the propagation is good.’
In any case, $7bn won’t be enough to pay for a nationwide network exclusively for the use of public safety organisations, so FirstNet is looking to establish partnerships with commercial providers and the existing base of public safety infrastructure across the nation. The US has a fragmented mixture of organisations at federal, state, county and agency level that have varying assets, many of which can form parts of FirstNet. There are obvious political issues associated with that, but it makes good sense to use the assets currently available.
‘We know $7bn is not enough,’ says Robert Le Grande, the founder of The Digital Decision, a consultancy that draws on his experience as a former CTO of the District of Columbia government. Le Grande is also an iCERT board member. ‘The challenge is how to achieve FirstNet’s goal on limited funds.’
One approach to enabling the creation of the nationwide network that has been considered is allowing a commercial provider to build the network and sell it to customers with the proviso that public safety organisations can use the network and have priority over commercial users. Brittingham is sceptical that this can work.
‘From Verizon’s point of view, while we recognise the value of the spectrum, we’re less bullish on spectrum sharing opportunities than others,’ Brittingham says. ‘The real issue is how much spectrum FirstNet can take away from first responders. It may be a lot in some less densely populated areas, but in many cases there may not be enough spectrum around.
‘Even if you have a lot of spectrum available, it’s unclear how you might use it and FirstNet can take it back at any time,’ he adds. ‘From a commercial operator point of view, the value of that network will diminish over time as more first responders use the network and adopt broadband.’
Le Grande concurs: ‘The business case for it is not sound because the commercial operator would have made a significant investment of at least $20bn to truly build it and they would build it as a depreciating asset because public safety usage will increase, so less of the network will be available to them.’
Brittingham therefore sees having the entire network built out by commercial providers as an unlikely outcome. However, he does see scope for commercial operators to partner with FirstNet, at least during the early years of operation.
‘The first challenge is to co-ordinate FirstNet’s efforts within states and municipalities that have traditionally had responsibility for this,’ he says. ‘They’ve done a pretty effective job so far and have worked closely with the individual organisations to engage them in the partnering process. It’s not just the states, though, it’s the end users as well, which sometimes have their own infrastructure. Every state has some investment already in facilities that may be used whether those are cell towers, backhaul or fibre networks.
‘We realise that it’s going to take a long time to build out this network and one way we can help is because they are deploying LTE,’ explains Brittingham.
‘We can establish a roaming arrangement where FirstNet builds out a network in a city, but not the surrounding areas, to give first responders the ability to roam into our network with interoperability.’
That would enable first responders from surrounding areas to roam into the city in emergency situations and vice versa. Brittingham also says Verizon is willing to share passive infrastructure such as cell towers, power supplies and ancillary equipment. He points out that a large number of Verizon’s cell sites are hardened to at least a commercial level and that may be enough to meet the needs of some public safety users.
The financial constraints placed upon it mean that FirstNet is now faced with the need to prioritise where it invests. By doing so it can start to generate income and gradually build out the rest of the network. Brittingham sees three key priorities.
The first is in urban areas where, by definition, populations are more dense and the needs of first responders are greater. ‘Police are looking at the use of video for surveillance, for example, and the demands of that on the network are going to be significant,’ he says.
‘In the event of a large incident in a city, demand increases across the board so having dedicated capability is very important.’
The next priority is the rural areas. ‘Certain parts of the country don’t have commercial coverage available and, while the need for broadband isn’t as frequent as in a major city, in the event of a forest fire coverage is needed,’ Brittingham explains. ‘If I was FirstNet, I’d be looking for commercial providers to fill that gap and most areas will be served as more money is generated and FirstNet expands to the rest of the country.’
A final priority is the use of deployable assets. ‘In any major event the ability to bring deployable assets and turn up a network when even the commercial networks are out of service is important,’ he says. ‘The great thing about that is you can put the network into service when there are no options available.’
Achieving these priorities and the ultimate goals of FirstNet will require existing assets, commercial providers and a range of the existing assets held by federal and local authorities and the end user organisations themselves together. iCERT, which is made up of a number of different partners, has been working to create a framework all parties can agree to.
‘It comes with challenges but I am proud of what we have been able to create, which is an architecture,’ says Le Grande. ‘I definitely applaud our members for coming together.’