Work Begins in Earnest to Create Nationwide Public Safety Network

By Magnuson, Stew | National Defense, August 2013 | Go to article overview

Work Begins in Earnest to Create Nationwide Public Safety Network


Magnuson, Stew, National Defense


* After five long years of fighting in the halls of Congress for the right to build and operate their own nationwide wireless network, loosely confederated groups of firefighters and police from jurisdictions all over the nation finally emerged victorious last year.

Congress in the 2012 Tax Relief Act granted a highly coveted block of radio spectrum to public safety agencies for their exclusive use, and threw in $7 billion to help kickstart the effort.

Now comes the hard part: actually building it.

A country the size of the United States has never taken on the monumental job of creating a fully integrated national wireless network, said Craig Farrill, acting chief technical officer and board member of the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), which is the organization tasked with creating the system.

Even the commercial wireless providers didn't do it. Today's T-Mobiles, AT&Ts and the like took some 25 years to build out their networks, and did so mostly by one company acquiring others, Farrill said at a recent presentation to first responders in Arlington, Va.

"This really is a first," he added.

The vision for FirstNet is something beyond what these companies provide everyday consumers, said Jeff Johnson, a FirstNet board member.

The goal is to have a single wireless technology tied to the D-block of radio spectrum--once used for analog television signals--and have the communication devices work seamlessly "from the tallest buildings and the deepest basements in Manhattan to the most rural parts of America in Alaska," Johnson said.

This was one of the recommendations of the 9/11 commission and sprung from the lack of interoperable communications during the attacks on the World Trade Center, he noted.

The devices, whether they are smartphones, tablets, laptops or mobile command-and-control centers, must work in all 3,250 counties in the United States and six additional commonwealths and territories. In other words, if a firefighter from New York City were somehow dropped in the middle of the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, his communication device would connect instantly.

"All of us instinctively knew that if we got the legislation through, the implementation would be even more challenging," said Johnson, a firefighter from Washington state. "And it is every bit as challenging as we thought it might be."

Public safety agencies and allies such as the National Governors Association wrestled with the giant telecommunication companies in the halls of Congress for control of the D-block of spectrum after the Federal Communications Commission failed to find a bidder who would buy the rights to the excess capacity and build a public safety network. The big telecom companies said they could both share the spectrum with their commercial customers and first responders.

The public safety community wanted the D-block exclusively. Once Congress gave in to it, the FirstNet board of directors, under the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, began its work. The board, comprising six members from public safety agencies and six with backgrounds in the wireless industry, was established. It began last year with a blank sheet of paper. It spent about eight months writing a 400-page document examining how FirstNet might look.

The second part of the implementation plan called for the board to go on a listening tour. The first of a series of six regional meetings took place in Arlington, Va., in May, where public safety officials from the mid-Atlantic region and Puerto Rico gathered to hear presentations on the concept, and to share their concerns and ideas. FirstNet representatives will also visit all 56 states and territories. Each of those 3,000-plus counties has different topographies and requirements, Farrill noted.

Johnson repeatedly assured the assembled firefighters, police and emergency medical services (EMS) officials at the meeting that FirstNet was not intended to replace their land-mobile, push-to-talk radios--at least not in the near term. …

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