The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) — the independent agency charged with constructing a nationwide, seamless emergency communications network — continues to take steps toward that ultimate goal, its acting general manager told Congress recently.
It has established a permanent headquarters in Reston, Virginia, a test-and evaluation center in Boulder, Colorado, and is working its way through a series of consultations with the states, TJ Kennedy told the House Homeland Security Committee’s subcommittee on emergency preparedness, response and communications.
Kennedy also revealed that FirstNet will allow commercial providers to use excess spectrum — when not needed for emergency communications — and to charge them fees for the privilege.
Priority switching will be built into the systems from the ground up, so the airwaves will always be open for first responders when needed. Wireless communications vendors can lease the unused spectrum from the authority, which will take the money and put it toward operating the network, Kennedy said.
Testing at the Boulder facility has already shown that this is feasible, he added.
“We’re encouraged that we will have additional funding to help support the network going forward,” Kennedy said.
Prior to Congress establishing the First Responder Network, commercial wireless providers wanted control of the D-block of spectrum, which became available after the demise of analog television. Industry lobbyists argued that the commercial providers were best suited to set up and operate the network, and that they would ensure that police, fire and other emergency response users had priority access when needed.
First responder organizations and the Department of Homeland Security vehemently opposed the idea, which was quashed when the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 established FirstNet and handed control of the D-Block over to the independent agency, which is under the Department of Commerce.
The vision is to have a network of interoperable radios that local, state federal and tribal first responders can use anywhere in 56 states and territories — from the urban canyons of New York City to the remote wilds of Alaska. Early drafts of how it would work would use existing cell phone towers and perhaps satellites to reach sparsely populated areas.
States have the right to opt out of the system and go their own way. FirstNet officials have said in the past that keeping the states and territories’ fees low is key. If they are too high, they may choose to create their own system.
How much states should pay is one of the topics the authority is speaking to local authorities about as it makes its way through the state-by-state consultations.
Kennedy said FirstNet officials completed eight of the consultations in 2014. It has another 24 sessions slated for 2015. The remaining states and territories are not yet prepared to have the discussions, he said.
Draft requests for proposals for certain network and equipment services were released for comment this year, Kennedy said. It received 122 responses from potential vendors. In all those requests, the ability to switch from commercial to emergency communications was included.
Requests for proposals are expected to be released in early 2015, he added.
“FirstNet also is actively conducting extensive market research to gain as much insight as possible into the capabilities, opportunities, risks and innovative business partnerships in the market today,” he said.
Kennedy indicated that technology acquisition will not be what vendors who work with the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security are accustomed to, with only one vendor walking away with a large contract.
“FirstNet is taking an objectives-based approach to our procurement, rather than a requirements-driven approach in order to promote flexibility in achieving FirstNet’s goals while helping FirstNet reduce the complexity we face in managing and integrating the diverse set of components needed to meet our mission,” he said.
The will mean “multiple ways to meet an objective,” he added.
So far, no FirstNet official has offered up a timeline as to when the nationwide network might be completed. The legislation that created it did not include a deadline.
Mark Grubb, the FirstNet single point-of-contact for Delaware, said at the hearing that those waiting for the system to come online will have to be patient.
The process “has been a little bit slow, to be honest. But it is a little bit understandable due to the size of the project they’re undertaking. It is astronomical.”
Photo Credit: Stew Magnuson