Still a Long Way to go for FirstNet

by David Krebs | 07/10/2014

With broadband networks playing such a critical role in the future of public safety, especially regarding the enablement of mobile solutions, the public safety market is moving towards establishing a nationwide, interoperable, voice, video, and data-run network: the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet). Through the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO), the goal of this revolutionized public safety communications system is to give first responders access to the modern-day tools necessary to help save lives, solve crimes, and keep our communities safe. Though broadly a nationwide effort, Ed Parkinson (FirstNet director of government affairs) said, “This network – it’s not going to be a one size fits all. It’s really going to be focused on local problems and local solutions”. This represents a sizeable national infrastructure project to undertake, and with many steps yet to come, the implementation of FirstNet remains in the initial development stage.

Through NASCIO’s ongoing research, sustainable business and financial plans for FirstNet are currently under discussion. The 2014 NASCIO reportThe States and FirstNet: An Early Look from the State CIOs, was recently released for the purpose of polling the state and territorial CIOs on their states’ efforts in order to evaluate exactly where each state is in the development process. As displayed by NASCIO’s “FirstNet maturity scale”, over 70% of respondents categorized their states as either “developing a governance model” or “organizing its activities with other key stakeholders in the state”, and around 16% have even gone a step further and have “collected baseline data on operations, assets, and user baselines”. Some of these state-driven initiatives are quite far along in this process, showing signs of a regional collaboration. The initial development processes are underway, as is the documentation of each state’s existing Land Mobile Radio System (LMRS) and the focus on other imperative assets. The concentration on these areas as well as the partnering with key vendors including Alcatel-Lucent, Motorola, and Harris Corporation is setting the stage for the ongoing networking, connectivity, and funding necessary to continue this project.

For FirstNet and various other public safety technology modernization initiatives to succeed, participation and innovation from the broader IT community is required. Relying on traditional or legacy public safety solution providers – and their vested interest in maintaining the status quo – is a losing proposition. Promotions such as the White House “create-your-own” public safety apps were created with the intent of drawing in as much collaboration and creativity as possible. Not only does this initiative have the potential to foster an entrepreneurial spirit towards the growth of this network, it also empowers the people to be proactive and fully involved in this effort. We believe that in order to have a successful implementation of a nationwide network, a nationwide effort is necessary, and we will be tracking these initiatives as time progresses.

FirstNet represents a massive opportunity to provide much needed modernization and innovation to public safety communications and to revolutionize how public safety and first responders operate in the United States. That said, today’s LMR-based networks will continue to represent the lifeline for mission critical voice communications among first responders for the foreseeable future, certainly the next ten, if not twenty, years. There is no near term viable alternative that can provide the same level of reliability, redundancy, coverage and immediacy available today.  Moreover, FirstNet, at least initially, will bridge the need for a ubiquitous broadband data network while the need for interoperable, mission critical voice will remain. Only over time will voice be integrated with FirstNet with key technical and functional hurdles of supporting direct mode push to talk (PTT) voice and off-network direct communications for both voice and data needing to be addressed.

Beyond the technical issues, FirstNet faces substantial business model challenges including calculating the feasibility of developing a nationwide network for what amounts to a couple of million users. While FirstNet has $7 billion of federal funding to leverage, this represents but a drop in the bucket when compared to what commercial carriers invest today in building and maintaining their networks. Creative collaboration with national and local commercial carriers, to evaluating options to expand the user community (transportation and utilities, for example) and leasing agreements for excess capacity are all scenarios FirstNet will need to explore moving forward.  VDC will be closely monitoring and analyzing this initiative and these issues in a forthcoming report on the North American market for public safety broadband communications.

Written by Research Associate Natalie Buckner