Homeland Security and Public Safety

FirstNet Faces Major Obstacles

The nationwide interoperable emergency network could be as far as 10 years away and require an additional $10 billion in funding.

Building FirstNet -- the national public safety network -- has been a priority since President Barack Obama signed legislation in February that set aside $7 billion in federal grants to make the network a reality. In August, the network was beginning to take shape, but according to a story by The New York Times, such a network could be as far as 10 years away.

The U.S. was introduced to the need for interoperability with 9/11, and many advancements helped in Hurricane Sandy response efforts, but first responders still fought with regional power failures and cell tower disruption. In addition, emergency officials who showed up from other cities to help could not talk to New York officials with the radios they brought from home, according to The Times. Some experts predict that deployment of a network that would have allowed all radios to work with each other post-Sandy will require an additional $10 billion -- and five to 10 more years.

“To think that you can build a network that can withstand anything and everything that Mother Nature throws at it is a bit unrealistic,” Bill Smith, president of AT&T Network Operations, told The Times. “It’s not impossible, but it would be incredibly expensive.” 

Relying on contracts with commercial cell providers proved a poor solution, as many areas in the Northeast lost service during Hurricane Sandy. Congress initiated work on an interoperable network with $2 billion in funding and an additional $5 billion could be offered by the FCC's spectrum auction, though there are conflicting interests of broadcasters, government agencies and private industry that could prevent such funding from ever manifesting.

Organizing such a wide-reaching and comprehensive project has proved troublesome. With different organizations around the country at different stages of development and in need of different things, getting everyone on the same page has created political roadblocks to smooth development of the network.

Photo: Vice President Joe Biden greets and thanks the first responders of Hurricane Sandy during a tour of the PATH station that was flooded by the storm surge. By Liz Roll/FEMA