FirstNet – A Boon or Boondoggle?

The federal program FirstNet was born out of the tragedy of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. At the time there was a lot of negative press when it was realized that first responders from New Jersey were unable to communicate with those from New York. And the idea was born to create a nationwide platform so that all first responders could easily communicate with each other.

The FirstNet concept first tackled the concept of interoperability. There were a number of jurisdictions where interoperability was an issue then. But since 9/11 most metropolitan areas have solved the interoperability issue on their own. The fire and police departments in regions got together in the years after 9/11 and made sure they could communicate with each other. One of the easiest fixes was for first responders to add cellphones to complement the first responder radios that were the major method of communications in 2001. So the concept morphed into a discussion of finding cellular bandwidth for first responders. We’ve seen repeatedly that local cellular networks instantly get clogged during any kind of major emergency, and this means that first responders have trouble making cellphone connections just like everybody else.

Congress stepped into the discussion in 2012 and created FirstNet (First Responder Network Authority). As part of that action Congress set aside Band 14 of the 700 MHz spectrum for the exclusive use of first responders nationwide. After several reboots of the RFP process the new agency finally chose AT&T to provide a nationwide LTE network for first responders. The company was given $7 billion as the first payment towards creating the nationwide cellular network. The GAO had estimated that the final network could cost as much as $47 billion.

States were given the right to opt-in to FirstNet with zero cost to the states. In the last month or so thirteen states have chosen to be part of the effort. That means that AT&T will provide the network in those states using federal dollars.

But there is a huge question, mostly technical, of whether this network makes any sense. A lot of engineers say that FirstNet is overkill and that there are now other ways to solve the same problem. A hint of how easily this can be done came from a press release from Kansas, which just bought into FirstNet. In that release AT&T said that until FirstNet is built in the state that first responders would immediately get priority access to cell towers and by the end of this year would have preemptive access – meaning that a call attempt made by a first responder would shove somebody else off the cellular network. Providing preemptive access is a far less costly way of solving the problem. If first responders can be given preemptive access that easily, then there really is no longer a need for FirstNet.

To add fuel to the fire, Verizon just announced at the end of the next week that they would offer these same services to first responders everywhere – and with zero federal dollars. Verizon will immediately offer preemptive access to cell towers to all first responders.

Any topic having to do with first responders is always an emotional one and much of the first responder community has bought into the concept of having interference-free spectrum. But the Verizon announcement shows that the FirstNet solution is obsolete before the first piece of network is constructed.

And the FirstNet implementation comes with a big national cost. It’s clear that we need a huge amount of bandwidth to satisfy customer demands for cellular data. It seems wasteful to use a slice of prime spectrum in Band 14 of 700 MHz when it’s not needed. That spectrum is worth more to the country for providing cellular data than for handling calls from first responders. This would not be true if first responders really needed this spectrum to communicate – but the cellular companies can give them preemptive access using existing cellular spectrum. For the vast majority of time the FirstNet spectrum will sit virtually unused – at any given time in a city it might be handling hundreds of transmissions from first responders when it could instead be handling hundreds of thousands of transmissions for everybody.

There is also the rural issue to deal with. FirstNet is supposed to provide nationwide first responder access. But as somebody who travels widely in rural America, I can tell you that a lot of the AT&T LTE coverage map is bosh. There is a whole lot of rural America where cell coverage is either spotty or non-existent. When you get to a rural place you quickly come to understand the short distance that a cell signal travels from any given cellular tower. There are gaps everywhere in rural America between widely-spaced cell towers.

First responders in rural America are not going to rely on the FirstNet spectrum even if it’s freely available to them. They are more likely going to keep their current radio networks that work today, using spectrum that travels farther than the 700 MHz spectrum. I can’t help but picture a rural tragedy, such as a downed-plane, where first responders from outside the area will have no communication ability if the FirstNet signal to the needed area is weak or nonexistent.

I see this as another giant government handout to the huge carriers. You can be assured that a lot of the money going to AT&T will go to their bottom line. I hope, at least, that some of the money they are getting for FirstNet will at least improve normal cellular coverage in rural America – but I’m not holding my breath. To me this seems like another big federal program that is being spent to fix a problem that no longer exists. Local jurisdictions solved the interoperability problem in the first few years after 9/11. And the ability of cellular companies to give preemptive access to first responders means there is no reason to set aside a huge valuable slice of spectrum.

CHECK Comments for correction and update.

One thought on “FirstNet – A Boon or Boondoggle?

  1. I need to correct my statements that Band 14 of the 700 MHz spectrum is assigned just to FirstNet. It’s also used for other cellular data purposes for the various license holders.

    Also note that Verizon was required by the FCC to comply with FirstNet compatibility, although their press releases make it sound like they did this out of the goodness of their hearts.

    I know there are a lot of states and first-responder entities that are huge fans of the idea, which is why I asked if it is a boon. But there are plenty of other states that said they are not going to opt in, even though it’s free.

    There is always some hope that extending the FirstNet network might lead to more rural cell towers, although there is no guarantee of that. But anything that improves rural cellular and data coverage is a good thing.

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