Do We Really Need FirstNet?

English: LTE logo

English: LTE logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many of you probably are not aware that Congress has mandated the creation and construction of a new first responder communications network. The project is being called FirstNet. As I have watched the development of this process I see some fundamental problems with the way that this is being done, which I will discuss below.

The idea for FirstNet came out of the 9/11 Commission. I am sure that everybody remembers that during the World Trade Center attacks that many of the responders from nearby states were unable to communicate well with the New York City police and fire departments. One of the findings of the 9/11 Commission was a recommendation that first responders be made to coordinate technology systems.

FirstNet was then created by Congress as part of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act signed in February 2012. This Act established the project, but most of the funding is going to come from proceeds from 2014 spectrum auctions. FirstNet is being overseen by a Board including individuals from public safety; current and former local, state and federal officials; and wireless experts. FirstNet is a new independent entity created within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).

FirstNet is will use LTE wireless spectrum for first responder communications. For now FirstNet will provide mobile data and commercial class voice, but existing technology systems must be maintained to provide mission critical voice.

So what are my problems with this idea? After all, being against FirstNet can be made to feel like being against police and firefighters. I certainly think the overall goal of improving coordination among first responders is a great one, but I have the following concerns about it.

Technology. FirstNet has chosen LTE spectrum as the one solution to fit everywhere. However, the topology in the US varies widely and while LTE might be a good solution for metro areas, it is a pretty poor solution for the hills of West Virginia. Choosing one single nationwide solution overrides the ability of locales to pick the best local engineering solutions.

Further, the LTE solution doesn’t guarantee to be able to supply mission critical voice. I don’t know how it could. Large geographical areas of the US still don’t have adequate cell phone coverage or even cell phone towers and the LTE solution won’t work in these rural places. As I have said before, rural cell phone towers were designed to handle roaming cars, not where people live, so the coverage is often very spotty in the places that first responders are going to need coverage.

National Solution to Fix a Regional Problem. Do we really care that first responders from Arkansas can interface seamlessly with responders in New York or California? As a country we have faced similar issues before and fixed them on a regional basis. For example, when we were seeing increasing electric blackouts, FERC, the national electric regulation agency required the electric grid to fix their problems regionally. It forced electric companies in a given region to cooperate to create the infrastructure that could be used to pinch off blackouts.  In 9/11 the issue was that first responders from New Jersey could not communicate with the New York City units. That does not necessarily require a nationwide, one-size-fits-all solution.

Too Costly. This is too costly in several ways. First, it creates a new permanent federal agency to oversee it. Long after communications are improved we will still have a new bureaucracy to pay for. Second, it’s not even a complete solution and is requiring localities to maintain their current mission critical voice systems. Third, this obsoletes a lot of systems that are already working well and forces an expensive upgrade and retrofit over top of already new technology. In the past there have been several swaths of bandwidth assigned to first responders and this basically ignores all of the work that has been done with those frequencies. Finally, who pays for all of this in another decade or two when the LTE technology becomes old? It’s bound to happen – as I have discussed in this blog, wireless technology continues to improve and LTE is not the mobile end game.

Blackmails States into Joining. States are free to do this on their own, but if they elect to do so they must pick up 20% of the cost. Like many other federal programs there is a big stick to coerce states to do things the federal way.

To me this just feels like an expensive big government approach that uses a hammer to fix a screw driver problem. Congressmen always complain that it’s hard to balance the federal budget, but it’s hundreds of these kinds of permanent mandates that make it almost impossible to cut federal expenses. Once this new bureaucracy is created it can’t go away. This has the federal government spending huge dollars to take care of something that has always been done locally. If the feds instead created standards for compatibility, this could  be done on a local or regional basis with regional tax dollars. I applaud the goal of FirstNet, but I hate the solution.

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