FirstNet

As a public safety official, you’ve probably already heard of the First Responder Network Authority (typically referred to as FirstNet). It’s a high-speed broadband network specifically for first responders and public safety workers that was established by the federal government in 2012.

What you might not know is that its implementation in every state is imminent. Governors all over the country have begun preparing for it with various deployment plans, or plans to opt out.

The rapid-deployment plans, which include the framework of FirstNet’s coverage, the features it provides and its mission-critical abilities, initially became available to the governors through an online portal that launched on June 19, 2017.

After that release, the governors were given 45 days to look over the plans and give their suggestions on them, at which point a three-month period begins in which the governors can opt in or out, which would require them to choose their own deployment plan.

The deployment plan was released only three months after AT&T was chosen to be the provider for FirstNet. AT&T was given a 25-year contract which included 20mhz of 700Mhz band radio spectrum in order to operate this public-safety centered network, with the added bonus that when it’s not in use for emergencies, AT&T can still make use of it for commercial and other business purposes.

The main purpose of FirstNet is to do away with the delays and congestion that cellphone and Internet services often experience during times of heavy use, and to give emergency workers and PSAPs priority which it comes to communication.

As an example, Bill Schrier, a senior advisor for FirstNet and a former member of the Seattle police department, points out that in 2014, when the Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl and had a victory parade through Seattle’s downtown area, the nearby cell networks became overloaded during the parade. The Firstnet system was designed as a solution to issues like that one.

The states that choose to opt in to the FirstNet deployment plan will have access to its priority network, which will, whenever possible, including broadband coverage.

In the event that that coverage is not available, AT&T is required to provide 3-4G service until they are able to upgrade the broadband service completely. Eventually, AT&T will be able to provide that broadband service all across the country.

It’s important to note here that AT&T was actually given a six-month span to create the plan once the partnership was announced, and they did it in half the time, which has its pros and cons.

Any project of this magnitude that gets done ahead of schedule would probably be hailed as a significant accomplishment, but AT&T being able to distribute the plan ahead of time put more pressure on the states to explore the alternatives to the FirstNet deployment strategy.

As of early July, there were at least five states that asked for potential proposals for opting out of the FirstNet plan: New Hampshire, Arizona, Colorado, Alabama, and Michigan. Only one of them, New Hampshire, has already selected an alternate vendor.

These states weren’t objecting to FirstNet per se; they were seeking more large-scale solutions to their communication issues across the spectrum, not just when it came to emergency services.

But the decision to seek other avenues might be difficult for these states.

For example, there are groups like APCO International that are seeking a more comprehensive version of FirstNet, and they’ve said that they’re concerned about a fragmentation in the network if too many different providers are involved.

They’ve also stated that a group of different vendors would make an all-inclusive review process for FirstNet virtually impossible, making it difficult to sort out any initial issues it might have. This would also add needless administrative tasks, more complex service issues and bring potential cybersecurity risks to a system that was designed to solve problems, not create more of them.

Public safety technology must be reliable and effective above all else. That’s why it will be so interesting to see how FirstNet changes our public safety infrastructure. For more on public safety tech developments, read How to Prepare Your PSAP for NG911 Compliance.

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