Urgent Communications: Clearer Timeline for FirstNet Not Expected until 2015


States and localities will have a clearer understanding of the cost to participate in the public-safety broadband network after a comprehensive request for proposals goes out in early 2015, according to Amanda Hilliard,FirstNet’s director of outreach.

“As we go through that process and get responses back and make an award, we’ll have a lot more information and detail on potential cost and build-out of the network that will then get incorporated into the state plans,” Hilliard said Wednesday during an IWCE’s Urgent communications webinar on the “State of the States.”

For agencies that are preparing for the coming of FirstNet, while trying to maintain their current communications systems, those answers cannot come soon enough.

“Everybody wants to know what is this going to cost us in the end. What is the business model? What is it going to cost? How is it going to operate in the end,” said Scott Neal, director of the Pennsylvania State Police’s Bureau of Communications and Information Services.

“My fear is that we have a lot of public safety agencies right now that do currently subscribe to a commercial broadband, but we have a lot of them that don’t. So those agencies that don’t—what’s going to entice them? How is it going to be attractive enough to them to find money in their budgets to utilize this?”

The lengthy process will hit a significant milestone next week when the nearly two-year-old FirstNet has its first state consultation meeting. But with the rest of the states and territories to follow, the magnitude of the stakeholders involved and the information that must be collected from them can be daunting, Hilliard said.

“We’re about to go through a significant RFP process with some unknowns and of course it’s a time-consuming process. It’s a little bit hard at this time to give exact timeframes,” she said.

Aside from that uncertainty, first-responder agencies and other stakeholders are also anxious to hear more information about the reliability of the network and how priority status will be determined for first responders once the network is deployed, said state representatives who participated in the webinar. The participants all recommended that stakeholders be engaged early in the process.

“Our primary message now has been to get involved. We keep telling folks that this may seem far fetched, but the planning process is happening, and now is the time for folks to start looking at coverage, critical infrastructure,” said Todd Early, statewide communications interoperability coordinator for Texas.

“[It’s] time to start thinking about what legacy applications they have to be integrated into this network and then really to get innovative and start thinking futuristic and be creative with what tools and applications they need to provide to their first responders that will allow them to respond quicker, faster, safer, smarter,” Early added.

It’s also important that stakeholders not view public-safety LTE as a threat to land-mobile radio (LMR), even though LTE is expected to eventually replace LMR, said Bill Malone, who recently retired executive director of the Adams County Communications Center (ADCOM911).

“I believe it will happen, and I believe it will happen faster than a lot of people think. But I also think that public safety takes a tremendous assortment of different tools and different uses of different devices,” Malone said. “We all know LMR is a very established technology that’s been around for a long time. LTE is new and right out of the gate promises a much broader suite of capabilities and products, but everybody today still has their hand on that radio.

“Everything should be given its opportunity to progress and let it sort itself out naturally through those processes. It doesn’t have to be a battle between one technology and another technology,” Malone added.

But the debate over how soon LTE will replace LMR for mission-critical communications and the general confusion in the public over what FirstNet is and how soon it will become a reality can make it difficult for agencies to argue the case for necessary LMR system upgrades, Neal said.

“It makes me somewhat kind of cringe when anyone makes the statement that we’ll have mission-critical voice over LTE sooner than anyone expects,” Neal said.

“When you have the FirstNet factor out there, it creates some extra hurdles for us to overcome when we try to tell everyone that we have to continue to invest in and maintain our LMR systems because nobody can give us a hard, fast date on when mission critical voice over LTE will be available.”

The webinar, which was sponsored by General Dynamics C4 Systems, will soon be available on demand. The Digital Decision’s Robert LeGrande, who oversaw the build-out of the nation’s first public-safety broadband network while serving as CTO for Washington, D.C., was the moderator.