Courtesy NCSWIC Newsletter: NPSBN Implementation and Rural First Responders

By: Steve Devine, Interoperability Program Manager, Missouri Department of Public Safety

As FirstNet considers its approach for a NPSBN, rural America’s first responders consider their needs and requirements unique to their operating environments. Rural first responders face a greater variety of obstacles implementing mobile data than their suburban and urban counterparts. Historically, these obstacles include:

Few Users: Rural agencies are often made up of fewer users than suburban or urban public safety agencies. They also have less leverage when negotiating pricing for commercial wireless services as more cost-effective subscriber rates “per user” can be obtained with a higher number of subscribers. Having fewer users means less buying power when negotiating pricing with commercial carriers for equipment or services.

Fewer Commercial Service Options: In trying to utilize commercial wireless service for connectivity of mobile data applications in sparsely-populated areas, rural departments often have fewer carrier options resulting in less competition among providers.

Rural Mobile Data Coverage Inconsistencies: Rural departments may not have ubiquitous commercial wireless coverage throughout their entire service area, making some of the benefits associated with mobile data usage (i.e., easier access to greater information) more difficult to justify the cost of the service, both initial and ongoing.

Cost: Many rural agencies consider mobile data services as tools that are beyond their reach due to cost (initial and ongoing) of equipment and services. Many users acknowledge that the application’s mobile data services bring value to first responders and promote safety of first responders and those they serve. However, associated service costs are often too expensive for smaller agencies operating on even smaller budgets.

Some experts claim the NPSBN will be a metropolitan solution that will not provide terrestrial public safety broadband coverage in rural areas of the U.S. While initial rollout of FirstNet will, for many reasons, begin in the more populated areas of our country, rural public safety deployment is critical for FirstNet for several reasons:

Provides initial service in areas where there is none: FirstNet can provide effective mobile data rates in areas of the country with little or no terrestrial coverage today by implementing a baseline level of coverage with Long Term Evolution in sparsely populated areas. This coverage, while not meeting the definition of “broadband,” can make a difference in the day-to-day operations of first responders, allowing them regular access to a greater degree of information and meeting their operational needs. NPSBN has the capability to implement a degree of mobile data coverage throughout rural America that greatly exceeds what is available today.

Supports increased overall access by users: To meet the day-to-day needs of rural public safety agency users, data service solutions can be implemented in a variety of ways to meet user needs. Terrestrial solutions can leverage existing infrastructure (e.g., existing commercial towers or backhaul, locally-owned towers, connectivity) to offset the cost of implementing service. Non-terrestrial solutions, such as mobile satellite data and deployable solutions can also support first responders’ needs.

For rural agencies that have been unable to utilize mobile data services due to the obstacles listed above, FirstNet offers a unique opportunity. The NPSBN can provide agencies the ability to quickly access more information. The data services provided to rural public safety agencies by the NPSBN will add to their current voice capabilities and will become critical for day-to-day operations. FirstNet will soon create an environment which will raise mobile data expectations and the concept of “minimum equipment” that all first responders will need to have available to them. Today, many first responders only have voice capability and when exposed to the applications FirstNet will be providing, many will begin to think that having access to certain mobile data applications will not be a luxury but rather a necessity.  The creation of the NPSBN will allow management of rural public safety agencies the ability to make the “public safety toolbox” utilized by their users more effective.