The FirstNet public safety broadband network may be nationwide, but its roots are going to be local. As it plans the network, the First Responder Network Authority is in listen mode for the next six months to learn about local public safety needs, Ed Parkinson, FirstNet director of government affairs, told an audience on June 19, during the AGL Conference in Washington, D.C.
“We’re going to be working very, very diligently to understand what works in Maryland and how that’s different from what’s needed in Florida, what’s important in Texas and how that’s different from what’s needed in Alaska,” Parkinson said. “This network — it’s not going to be a one size fits all. It’s really going to be focused on local problems and local solutions.”
The state consultation process is a 45-step process, which leads to the final decision that a governor has to make as to whether to opt in or opt out of the network.
“This is very much a state- and local-driven initiative,” Parkinson said. “The state’s going to decide what kind of coverage they want. They’re going to decide the number of users, how those users are going to look within that state.” The initial state consultation begins at the end of July, and all 56 state and territorial consultations are slated for completion by the end of December this year.
Rural America is one of the key constituencies that FirstNet has been tasked to ensure has coverage, and it has multiple rural milestones that it must accomplish.
“And frankly, there are going to be a lot of fascinating opportunities for rural telecom in their work with FirstNet in providing coverage,” Parkinson said.
In terms of procurement, FirstNet has committed to completing a draft RFP for a comprehensive network solution by the end of this year.
“This is to identify what sort of network partnership we’re going to be able to identify and really see how fully comprehensive it’s going to be,” Parkinson said. “A second RFP will follow a few months later regarding equipment and services. And so there’s going to be a lot of very, very detailed information coming out from FirstNet over the next few months.”
Black & Veatch has been active in this space and is working on planning with multiple states to help them evaluate the opportunities and respond to FirstNet.
“So we’ve helped a variety of states look at the economic needs they might have to fund these kinds of networks, helped them look at their coverage and capacity issues and also understand how they’re going to integrate multiple agencies within their state in using this system,” said Marty Travers, president, telecommunications, Black & Veatch.
Helping with the planning process leaves Black & Veatch well positioned to assist the states when it’s time to deploy the FirstNet network, Travers said.
“It’s an aggressive schedule that’s been worked at,” he said. “And oftentimes, various states need help in maintaining that kind of pace and they often look to consultants like us to help them with that.”
For the tower engineering and construction business, FirstNet will offer opportunities, but it is unclear who the customer is going to be. It may be FirstNet or the state directly, and at other times it could be a wireless carrier.
“The good news is there is going to be a radio access network that’s going to be built in potentially multiple different flavors depending on what the states are going to do and how they’re going to do it,” Travers said. “But all of us who design towers, acquire property rights for towers, install equipment, and integrate and commission networks are going to have a role to play in making that radio access network operate and getting the data back to the core FirstNet database.”
Through the Middle Class Tax Relief Act, Congress created the First Responder Network Authority, which has a budget of $7 billion and 20 megahertz of dedicated 700-MHz spectrum, which guarantees collaboration with carriers that will lease some of the spectrum and tower owners that will lease tower space.
“I don’t think Congress is going to give us any more than that especially at this time in the political world,” Parkinson said. “The spectrum … is really the biggest feather in our cap. This is the most valuable asset that we have, and it’s one that we’re certainly going to be working to extract the most value out of.”
Lori Stone, State of Maryland broadband coordinator, agreed, “It’s coming, but $7 billion only goes so far. And we know that the tower operators will play a part in this somehow. So we want to make sure that you’re engaged with us early on.”
Mark Muratore, AT&T mobile applications consultant, was hopeful that FirstNet would provide a bridge between the individual carriers and help them to learn to interoperate.
“I think FirstNet brings the ability to act as a coordinating point and take away some of those commercial barriers, which may somehow exist in those sorts of circumstances. In a long-term sense, the ability to prioritize traffic for our first responders really helps, I think, segregate for carriers our customer base,” he said.