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.
The system is for high-speed transmission. The goal is to allow first responders to transmit video, images and other data.
“FirstNet today is not intended to replace mobile land radios. Will it? … Let’s see what technology does as FirstNet evolves,” he said.
“This isn’t a cataclysmic battle between broadband and mission critical voice — over LTE and land-mobile radio,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t have to be that.”
But he didn’t rule out FirstNet replacing radios someday.
“Data first. Mission critical voice later,” was his mantra at the meeting.
One of the initial conclusions of the study was that LTE, or long term evolution, is the best technology available for these purposes. While LTE is increasingly being used in the consumer market, and is tried and tested, FirstNet is going to differ in many ways, and be more challenging to implement than commercial wireless systems, Farrill said.
One major difference is coverage. The big telecommunication companies set up cell towers in populated areas and major roads in order to serve the most customers. About 85 percent of the U.S. population lives in roughly 9 percent of the land mass, he noted.
The initial study concluded that it will take 35,000 sites to cover 99.6 percent of the population and the national highway system. But that only covers 70 percent of the territory, Farrill said.
What about the other 30 percent? he asked. That is where satellite communications may need to come in, he said.
Cell towers only cover ranges of about one mile when it comes to data transmissions. The effectiveness lessens on the edge of the coverage area.
“We think video at the edge of the cell is critical,” Farrill said.
Each one of those 35,000 sites has to be reviewed in the context of its local terrain, foliage and requirements, he said.
There is a big difference in the topography between the western half of the United States and the eastern portion. The Rocky Mountains is the dividing line. West of there, signals must contend with mountains and canyons. While the East does have the Appalachians, in general, coverage will be easier there. Eighteen percent of the U.S. land mass is in sparsely populated Alaska, Farrill added.
Many first responders travel the federal highways to respond to incidents. “We are paying special attention to all those roads and where they go,” Farrill said.
“Our objective here is to maximize geographic coverage and minimize overall cost of deployment and operations. ... If you don’t have coverage, you don’t have a working system.”
The second challenge will be reliability. How trustworthy is that coverage? Good enough “to bet your life on it. If someone is dying in your arms, it had better work,” Farrill said.
The initial concept calls for cell towers as the main link. Deployable systems and satellite communications would be the failsafes.
Board members traveled last year to New York five days after Hurricane Sandy on a fact-finding mission, which Farrill described as an “eye-opening experience.”
In that case, first responders used deployable towers to back up destroyed fixed-sites.
FirstNet would not require communication satellites to link directly to individual devices, but rather a mobile system with a large dish that could serve as a hotspot for the individual users, Farrill said.
As for the devices themselves, the FirstNet board will eventually have to settle on one standard technology in order for it to be interoperable. Different vendors using this standard will be able to market their devices to public safety agencies.
They will have to adapt to public safety needs, though. For example, consumers use one-to-one communication on their smartphones, whereas a first responder must link to multiple users at the same time. There will have to be dynamic priority access protocols to manage large-scale disasters and strong security measures.
Johnson said: “It has to be truly public safety grade, meaning it has to be reliable, it has to be hardened and it has to be redundant.”
Farrill pointed out that this is a completely different design concept than what commercial wireless-device manufacturers are accustomed to making.
FirstNet may have a big enough base of users to prompt vendors to create smartphones, tablets and applications exclusively for the public safety market, Farrill added. “Together, if we get enough volume, we can drive devices that will meet fire needs, police needs and EMS needs.”
Johnson said the economies of scale may also push the cost of these devices downwards and save money for the users.
There were two unknowns that first responders have been asking about: How much will the fees cost, and when will it be built? FirstNet is not committing to a timeline, Johnson said.
As for the cost for the users, “We know whatever the price is … we must make it attractive enough to buy, or we fail,” he said.
There is no requirement that local police, fire or other agencies use FirstNet services. In fact, if a state doesn’t like what the organization has to offer, it can opt out.
Johnson said: “We know that if we do this right, we will save lives, and we will do our jobs more efficiently than ever.”
The board in June released the first round of requests for information. It sought papers on smartphones, routers, tablets, modems, specialized devices, security and privacy devices/applications, device management, other wireless equipment and applications.
A second RFI round is expected in July and would expand this to 17 categories including: switching centers, data centers, transmission facilities, deployables, satellites services and antennas, Farrill told reporters in a June press briefing.
Those papers, coupled with what the board of directors learned from its listening tour, will feed a deployment plan, Farrill said.
The FirstNet board also came to an agreement in June with the Los Angeles Regional Interoperable Communications System Authority (LA-RICS) to allow it to use the D-block spectrum. The greater Los Angeles area was on its way to creating its own first responder communications system when the 2012 law creating FirstNet was passed. Federal grants for it, and six other regions working on similar systems, were cut off in light of the new push for a nationwide network.
Board member Susan Swenson in the press briefing said the agreement will allow LA-RICS to both continue its work and serve as a FirstNet testbed.
“During that project, they will be doing things we can learn from,” particularly the deployment of a network in a dense urban environment, she said.
“We will be working hand in hand with L.A. during this project,” she added. Negotiations with the six other regional interoperable communications networks are ongoing, she said.
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