Five-Plus Years of FirstNet! FirstNet celebrates its five-year anniversary this month. The law that created FirstNet was signed by the President of the United States on February 22, 2017. However, the work really began when President Bush signed a law in 2006 requiring TV stations to vacate channels 52-69 no later than February 2008. Also in 2006, there was a series of discussions regarding the creation of a Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN) and in 2007, the FCC carved out 10 MHz (5X5) of the 700-MHz spectrum being vacated by TV stations, and then designated another 10 MHz of spectrum, known as the D-block to be bid on during auctions. The winner would work with Public Safety to create a private/public partnership to build out a nationwide broadband network.
Those driving this series of events included Morgan O’Brien, co-founder of Nextel, and Chief Harlin McEwen (Ret), who quickly became the champion of the Public Safety broadband network. In 2007, the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST), a non-profit corporation, was chosen by the FCC to hold the Public Safety broadband license. Chief McEwen was Chairman of the PSST and the board of directors was made up of representatives from fifteen national Public Safety organizations. When the D-block failed to be won at auction, the Public Safety community and the PSST worked with Congress to add the D-block to the 10 MHz of existing Public Safety spectrum to create a 10X10-MHz nationwide system.
This idea was opposed by several commercial network operators that had missed out on the 700-MHz spectrum and wanted the D-block to be re-auctioned without Public Safety restrictions. They were very vocal in their opposition, created several websites, and filed reams of documents with the FCC trying to prove Public Safety did not need more than 10 MHz of spectrum to meet its broadband needs. This opposition led to the creation of the Public Safety Alliance (PSA), which represented every form of the Public Safety community and included organizations such as the national association of governors and of mayors and had the support of many vendors within the wireless community as well as the two largest network operators.
It took the PSST, the PSA, APCO, NPSTC, and many other organizations until 2011 to gain traction with members of Congress and to convince some within the FCC that Public Safety would need access to more than the 10 MHz of spectrum already allocated. Tests were run simulating real-world capacity requirements using a variety of scenarios on a three-cell Public Safety LTE network that had been deployed by Motorola in Alameda County, CA. Those opposing the addition of the D-block were using the standard method of calculating commercial network capacity, using nineteen sites, each with three sectors. They assumed interference was common across all cell sectors, and then calculated the amount of traffic that could be handled over the network.
The issue came down to the fact that most local incidents occur within a rather small geographic area but require a large number of Public Safety personnel usually including law, fire, and EMS. This means capacity of the network needs to be calculated on a cell-sector basis as opposed to a set of wide-area network calculations. Remember too that LTE broadband provides faster data rates from the cell site down to field devices than in the upward direction. During an incident, the need for data and video services will be in both directions, to and from the incident, therefore capacity and speed of both the up and down portions of the network need to be put into perspective. These tests and the subsequent report provided to the FCC and members of Congress showed the Public Safety community needed access to a full 20 MHz (10X10 MHz) of spectrum, not only the 10 MHz already assigned. Continue reading