Homeland Security and Public Safety

FirstNet: Answers to Key Questions

The national public safety broadband network board must hit the ground running to deal with funding, governance, partnerships and broadband projects already in progress.

One of the 9/11 Commission’s key recommendations in 2004 was that Congress should provide for the expedited and increased assignment of radio spectrum for public safety purposes.

It took eight years to get the job done, but when President Barack Obama signed the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 into law on Feb. 22, it marked the culmination of years of effort for those who had been fighting for a national public safety network. The legislation combines the D Block of spectrum with the 10 MHz already allocated to public safety to create the First Responder Network Authority, or FirstNet, as an independent authority within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). FirstNet is charged with establishing a nationwide interoperable wireless broadband network for first responders and emergency management officials. The new network is not initially intended to replace existing public safety and first responder land mobile radio voice communication systems.

Public safety advocates have had little time to celebrate their legislative achievement because the establishment of FirstNet raises as many questions as it answers. First, an FCC Interoperability Board convened and within two months came up with 46 requirements and 56 suggestions FirstNet must consider to ensure the network is interoperable. When the FirstNet board was named in August, its members faced a series of questions involving funding, governance, architecture, partnerships and broadband projects already under way.

“The legislation sets guidance for the [FirstNet] board, but it has to establish policy,” said Harlin McEwen, chairman of the Public Safety Spectrum Trust, which holds public safety’s 10 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum. That spectrum will be paired with the D Block to provide the foundation for the FirstNet network. And before they get to the meaty policy issues, board members will have to establish ground rules. “Once the board is named, its members have to organize procedures, bylaws and a charter,” McEwen said. “Then they have to hire competent staff.”

Legislation Breakdown

-- reallocates the 10 MHz D Block to public safety, and with the Public Safety Spectrum Trust’s 10 MHz, provides a total of 20 MHz of broadband public safety spectrum;

-- establishes a Network Construction Trust fund of $7 billion;

-- establishes a temporary FCC Interoperability Board and a FirstNet Board;

-- establishes a standing Public Safety Advisory Board to the FirstNet board;

-- establishes NTIA state planning grants totaling $135 million;
-- requires public safety licensees to vacate T-Band channels in nine to 11 years; and

-- provides $300 million to the National Institute of Standards and Technology for research.

Source: Motorola Solutions Inc.

Public safety officials are well aware that they still face the problems identified in the 9/11 Commission Report, especially a continued reliance on commercial providers and an inability to prioritize public safety use over consumer and commercial use. This was brought home to Charles Robinson, key business executive for Charlotte, N.C.’s Business Support Services in 2010 when the city hosted a World Cup soccer game. “We had 70,000 people in Panther Stadium, and when something exciting happened in the game, everyone started using their cellphones to send photos, text, tweet or call,” he said. The cellphone tower overloaded, and the police command center that was set up outside the stadium was kicked off the network. “These types of things occur every day,” Robinson said. “Not a month goes by that our police chief doesn’t come to me with a problem trying to push data out to patrol cars.”

Today the only way public safety has access to broadband devices is through commercial services from companies such as Verizon or Sprint, McEwen said. “We are already realizing the benefits of transmitting building plans to firefighters or to police in a hostage situation,” he said, “but the systems are not reliable or secure enough, and they don’t cover all the areas we want them to. So we want the same kind of systems, only more reliable, with public safety organizations prioritizing access.”

Here are some key questions about FirstNet:

Who’s on the Team?

FirstNet’s board has 15 members with three of the seats filled by permanent members: the U.S. attorney general, director of the Office of Management and Budget and DHS secretary. Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank selected the 12 other members in August. At least three board members must have served as public safety professionals, and at least three members must represent the collective interests of states, localities, tribes and territories.

David Raths  |  Contributing Writer

David Raths is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine.