FirstNet ramping up for nationwide launch
Emergency communications network preparing for $100 billion procurement
“Of the five, there is no question that Texas is on this thing. Harris County is getting this done!”
Lesia Dickson (pictured) was speaking about five pilot programs across the country that are operating dedicated long-term evolution (LTE) networks for first responders through the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), and she left no doubt about which program was taking best advantage of the technology.
FirstNet in January issued a request for proposals (RFP) seeking a partner to build a nationwide public safety broadband network. The goal of the project is to create a dedicated communications network to be used by the nation’s emergency response personnel without interference from the public’s communications.
Responses to the RFP are due May 13. The original due date was April 29, but FirstNet officials pushed it back two weeks to give prospective bidders a bit more time to work on their proposals. But only a little more time. Dickson made clear that the project is on the fast track.
Currently, Dickson is an outreach coordinator doing work for the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS). On Monday, March 21, she will start her new job as Region 6 lead for FirstNet. It is her responsibility to make sure everyone who needs to know about the FirstNet project in Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas has all the information they need to prepare for what is coming.
And what, exactly, is coming? The public-private partnership (P3) is expected to cost upward of $100 billion. Dickson called it “the largest federal government procurement in history.” The idea arose from a recommendation made by the 9/11 Commission to create a nationwide communications network for first responders. Too often, in the middle of crises, communications networks get overloaded due to use by members of the public, and emergency responders are unable to share information with each other. Congress in 2012 dedicated 20 megahertz (MHz) of the broadband spectrum to FirstNet in an effort to create a space solely for the use of police, emergency medical service providers and the like.
That congressional action also appropriated $6 billion to begin the effort. That, of course, is a figure much lower than the expected $100 billion costs of the project. Dickson said that it’s simply an initial payment, meant to jumpstart the project. “It’s a down payment, and it has to be thought of that way.”
The winning bidder will get that $6 billion to get things started, but it will eventually pay the seed money back to the federal government. Instead, the network partner will have two avenues to recoup its investment and make a profit, because the whole project is designed to be a moneymaker. The first route is to charge user fees to the various levels of government users (states, municipalities and so forth) for the network and the infrastructure installed. The more important aspect, though, is the excess spectrum capacity.
Dickson explained that the 20 MHz is equal to the capacity owned by the four major telecommunications companies. “Think of FirstNet as the fifth carrier, and they will only sell to public safety providers.” As a result, the number of users for that 20 MHz of capacity is much smaller than the number of users for part of the broadband spectrum owned by, for example Sprint or T Mobile. The winning bidder will be able to make use of the excess capacity in whatever way it chooses: offering it to its own customers, selling it to other telecom providers or any number of other uses.
Most of the bidders are likely to be telecom carriers, for the simple reason that experience in this type of project is limited, and it matters. But it isn’t necessary to be a Verizon to bid. Because the RFP was written to reach an objective rather than to prescribe a path toward that objective, the network partner will be able to achieve FirstNet’s goals and then put the excess capacity to different uses.
“You can imagine an AT&T using the spectrum in a completely different way than a Google might,” said Dickson, who went on to suggest that the latter company might choose to dedicate its portion of the spectrum as a network for its autonomous vehicles.
The RFP responses are due in May, and the contract will be awarded in November. The goal is to have a contract written and signed within six months. Once that is accomplished, FirstNet will work with state governments to draw up plans for each state. Todd Early, a deputy assistant director at DPS, is the FirstNet point of contact for Texas, and he will lead the planning on the Texas state government’s end. Once that plan is presented to a state’s governor, the state has 90 days to decide to opt in or out of the network.
If a state opts out, however, it has 180 days to present its own plan to FirstNet for how it intends to build its own network for emergency responders. If that plan doesn’t meet the satisfaction of National Telecommunications and Information Administration officials, they can turn it down, and then the state will be placed in FirstNet’s plan and operate under the federal government’s authority. And there is no appeals process set up for that decision.
It is still early in the process, and there is still much to be decided. The state has set up a website to educate the public and public-sector employees about the Texas Public Safety Broadband Program. It includes a course that will qualify as continuing education credits for emergency personnel, as well.
There’s no doubting, though, that this is a significant project, unprecedented, even, according to Dickson.
“It is a one-of-a-kind thing, because we’ve never had spectrum act as a kind of currency before. And there’s nothing that has $100 billion as a line item on a budget, so this is unique.”