Inside FirstNet's innovation and test lab

The Lab tests devices and applications before they are deployed in the field

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By Sarah Calams

The First Responder Network Authority, commonly known as FirstNet, was created after the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012. Congress allocated $7 billion and 20 megahertz of radio spectrum to build a broadband network specifically designed for public safety personnel. In 2017, FirstNet selected AT&T to build and maintain the network.

However, at the end of the day, the network does not belong to anyone but the first responders who fought for it, according to Jeff Bratcher, chief technology and operations officer with FirstNet.


“This is theirs. They fought for the spectrum; they fought for the funding,” he said. “It took about 20 years to get it, so we’re just here to continue to drive and innovate.”

Bratcher heads up the FirstNet Innovation and Test Lab located at FirstNet’s technical headquarters in Boulder, Colorado. The FirstNet Lab tests public safety functionality and features unique to FirstNet’s mission-critical broadband network, including quality of service; priority; pre-emption; and other future mission-critical services and applications. A team of around 50 to 60 staff members are constantly working on device testing and certification.

“We work closely with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to publish a list of certified devices,” Bratcher said. “Our focus is really on those key public safety features; those are the capabilities we focus on for device testing and then working with NIST to get those on the list of devices.” 

The genesis and reason for creating the lab, Bratcher said, was to test devices and applications before being deployed in the field.

First responder-specific apps

The Innovation Lab also oversees the development of the FirstNet App Catalog, which contains app and software solutions to enhance the public safety mission. The app process is open to any application developer and is set up as part of a developer program and portal.

“We’ve done a lot of outreach into the app developer community,” Bratcher said. “Everyone plays games and those apps are fine, but what if you could build an app that could be used to save lives?”

The apps are becoming more critical as the network continues to grow, he said.

FirstNet’s catalog currently includes over 40 apps with more on the way as the company continues to host hack-a-thons and workshops to develop first responder-specific apps.

“The ones we’re focusing on for the FirstNet application catalog are verified to work with some of the unique features of the network,” Bratcher said. “There’s security built into it. Some of the things public safety relies on have a little more scrutiny to be listed and certified in our catalog.”

Understanding first responders’ needs is critical to creating apps they can use and rely on, he said.

About the author
Sarah Calams is a freelance writer who previously served as Associate Editor of FireRescue1 and Fire Chief.

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