Homeland Security and Public Safety

FirstNet Moves Forward, But Hurdles Remain

The national public safety broadband network should let federal, state and local emergency response personnel share data, do their jobs more efficiently and save more lives in the process.

The logic behind creating a nationwide broadband network for first responders is simple. Deploy a high-speed wireless communications system so that federal, state and local emergency response personnel can share data, do their jobs more efficiently and save more lives in the process.

But establishing robust wireless connectivity across every square meter of the United States’ diverse terrain is a lofty goal for even the most seasoned team of network engineers. Mountains and other natural interference can wreak havoc on even the strongest commercial cellular signals. And that doesn’t even address the potential for political bureaucracy and red tape.

Despite the challenges, the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) — an independent authority within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) that was established last year to help make the national broadband network a reality  — is making progress.

Seven regional wireless connectivity projects will serve as preliminary test sites. The hope is that once online, the sites will provide lessons learned and deployment data for future construction of a national model.

The sites, located in Adams County, Colo.; Charlotte, N.C.; the state of Mississippi; Los Angeles; the San Francisco Bay Area; northern New Jersey; and Albuquerque and Santa Fe, N.M., will negotiate and sign separate lease agreements with FirstNet to use the 700 MHz spectrum for broadband communications. The NTIA will give final approval. 

The seven sites were chosen because they are all recipients of 2010 Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grants. 

The regions were in the midst of engineering and constructing their own individual long-term evolution (LTE) wireless public safety networks when the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 established FirstNet.

As a result, funding was partially suspended by the NTIA, leaving the localities in a holding pattern. The regions began negotiating new spectrum lease agreements with the FirstNet board in February. Those talks are progressing well, according to the board. The FirstNet legislation includes $7 billion in federal funds to build the new network.

Jeff Johnson, a FirstNet board member and CEO of the Western Fire Chiefs Association, said the authority has spent the last several months building itself from the ground up. Johnson called FirstNet a “fledgling start-up entity” with all of the tasks associated with getting started in business — creating a system to manage its financials, hiring employees and other basic responsibilities.

“I liken it to being an incident commander, and you got to the fire before the fire apparatus,” Johnson said. “Everyone has an expectation that you are going to get out and do something … but the reality is, if you stay there and focus on your command priorities and plan the attack, it’s going to be more effective. And that’s what we’re doing.”

One of the first steps was to appoint 15 members to the board of directors, which will ultimately make the decisions about how operations will run. 

So far, 12 of the 15 members are in place, including Chairman Sam Ginn, a telecommunications executive and pioneer in the cellular telephone industry. Acting U.S. Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank appointed the group, which comprises telecommunications and policy leaders from both the public and private sectors.

 In its first two meetings last year, FirstNet adopted bylaws and a number of resolutions to enable the board to begin its work. One of those key moves was establishing a public safety advisory committee (PSAC). Through a deal with the Department of Homeland Security, FirstNet will share DHS’ SAFECOM program, which works to improve interoperable communications for the Office of Emergency Communications. 

Harlin McEwen, chairman of the Communications and Technology Committee for the International Association of Chiefs of Police, will serve as chair. 


Last fall, Reynolds and other members of the FirstNet board met individually with BTOP awardees to evaluate their progress and talk about how FirstNet might be able to leverage their work. Those meetings uncovered a few challenges.

For instance, there’s already a mismatch in resiliency standards for communication towers. North Carolina’s standard includes the ability to withstand seismic and ice impacts and winds up to 150 mph. But most of the towers in use by commercial wireless companies today are in the 75-120 mph wind load range, Reynolds reported to the FirstNet board last December.

FirstNet Board of Directors

FirstNet Board of Directors Permanent board members include the secretary of Homeland Security, the U.S. attorney general and the director of the Office of Management and Budget. The other 11 members include Johnson; Chuck Dowd, deputy chief of the New York City Police Department; Paul Fitzgerald, sheriff of Story County, Iowa; and Kevin McGinnis, chief of North East Mobile Health Services. Members with state or local government background include Wellington Webb, the former mayor of Denver; and Teri Takai, CIO of the U.S. Defense Department and the former CIO of Michigan and California.

Rounding out the board are Tim Bryan, CEO of the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative; F. Craig Farrill, a wireless telecommunications executive and acting FirstNet general manager; William Keever, a retired telecommunications executive; Ed Reynolds, a retired telecommunications executive; and Susan Swenson, a telecommunications and technology executive.

Retrofitting those commercial towers could be costly, and government funding can’t be used unless the government has a security interest in the tower, he reported. 

Local officials say there are other practical hurdles for FirstNet to overcome as well. Chief among those concerns is establishing a business model for FirstNet, according to Charles “Chuck” Robinson, director of shared services for Charlotte, N.C..

It’s still unknown whether the national broadband network will be operated by one specific vendor, or if FirstNet will want states or regional entities to go through an RFP process. With one private carrier, FirstNet could face stiff competition from public safety agency customers because agencies aren’t required to subscribe to the national network. If the cost for jumping to the service is too high, local entities might not have the financial ability or motivation to move. 

FirstNet’s goal is to produce a product that first responders need and want at a price that is at or below what agencies currently pay. 

Brian Heaton  | 

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines from 2011 to mid-2015.