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FirstNet’s national public safety network may finally become a reality

FirstNet’s selection of AT&T to build out the telecom spectrum is the biggest news thus far in this long-running saga

One of the biggest lessons learned in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks was that in a rapidly unfolding major catastrophe first responders from different disciplines and different departments could not communicate with one another via radio. Four years later, the same problem plagued first responders attempting to save people stranded on rooftops following Hurricane Katrina.

An effort was launched to fix the problem by creating a Public Safety Broadband Network (PSBN) capable of meeting current and future needs for interoperable interdisciplinary communications. The problem with this proposed solution is that it relied too heavily on the involvement of the federal government.

Achieving the construction of a usable interoperable national network saw little progress despite years of congressional hearings, conferences, studies, proposed legislation, and all manners of handwringing on all sides. To say that there was widespread frustration on the matter among PSBN advocates — public safety professionals in particular — is an understatement of massive proportions.

However, according to reports, the first spike of this transcontinental communications railway has been ceremoniously driven into the ground, as FirstNet has selected AT&T to build and maintain a national broadband network dedicated to America’s police, firefighters and emergency medical services personnel.

FirstNet will furnish the spectrum and pay AT&T $6.5 billion over the next five years. AT&T said that it will spend about $40 billion of its own money over the life of the 25-year contract to build, deploy, operate and maintain the network.

A long history of very little progress

For many longtime observers, this news is the best thing that’s happened for public safety in a very long time. In fact, for some who have been following this issue closely for a decade and a half (myself included) today’s news is something we’d come to doubt would ever happen at all. At every turn, any progress that was made fell far short of a network actually being built.

In 2008, the so-called D-Block — the 20 MHz swath of high-value wireless spectrum set aside for the national public safety broadband communications network — failed to receive even a single bid for the reserve price of $1.33 billion in the United States 700 MHz FCC wireless spectrum auction (officially known as Auction 73). The notion of a PSBN remained just that — a notion.

In 2011, the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) — a non-profit organization that combines politically balanced policymaking with strong, proactive advocacy and outreach — issued a report entitled Tenth Anniversary Report Card: The Status of the 9/11 Commission Recommendations. The very first item addressed in the chapter entitled “Nine Major Unfinished 9/11 Commission Recommendations” was allocation of the D-block to public safety. Despite such pressure, Congress failed to act and nothing much of consequence happened.

In 2012, Congress passed the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 (MCTRJCA), which included a stipulation to create the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), an independent authority within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. That bill included $7 billion in funding. FirstNet gathered industry experts, wireless carriers, and first responder leadership and began the hard work of making the PSBN a reality. But still, time passed with very little tangible forward progress.

Finally, a project in the making

Fast forward to today — five years after FirstNet was established — FirstNet’s selection of AT&T to build out the telecom spectrum is the biggest news thus far in this long-running saga.

In a statement, AT&T said that it will work with FirstNet to “innovate and evolve the network to keep the public safety community at the forefront of technology advances.”

For example, as 5G network capabilities develop in the coming years, AT&T will seek to provide “exponential increases in the speed with which video and data travel across the FirstNet network,” the company said.

AT&T said that the nationwide mobile communications network for first responders will help:

  • Improve rescue and recovery operations to help keep first responders out of harm’s way
  • Better connect first responders to the critical information they need in an emergency
  • Further the development of public safety focused IoT and Smart City solutions such as providing near real-time information on traffic conditions to determine the fastest route to an emergency
  • Enable advanced capabilities, like wearable sensors and cameras for police and firefighters, and camera-equipped drones and robots that can deliver near real-time images of events, such as fires, floods or crimes

“FirstNet is a critical infrastructure project that will give our first responders the communications tools they need to keep America safe and secure,” U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in a statement. “This public-private partnership will also spur innovation and create over ten thousand new jobs in this cutting-edge sector.”

Many of those jobs will likely be created at companies such as Motorola Solutions, General Dynamics, Sapient Consulting and Inmarsat Government, all of whom have joined the AT&T team in partnership with FirstNet.

AT&T is now required to present a network plan to the governors of all 50 states, five U.S. territories, and the District of Columbia covered by FirstNet. Those governors must decide within 90 days whether or not they want to participate in FirstNet or opt out of the network. In the event that they opt out, those states must then design and build its own radio access network that must be interoperable with the rest of the network and tie into the FirstNet core.

AT&T said that the company will begin rollout of the network later this year. That seems overly optimistic, but perhaps the company can pull off such a significant undertaking that quickly. Perhaps it’s true that good things come to those who wait.

Doug Wyllie writes police training content on a wide range of topics and trends affecting the law enforcement community. Doug was a co-founder of the Policing Matters podcast and a longtime co-host of the program.