First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) officials today defended the benefits of the network to first responders, implicitly criticizing a rival offering by Verizon Communications, Inc. The board also approved a fiscal year 2018 budget and officials said that lessons can be learned from the preparation for and response to recent hurricanes and wildfires. At the board’s quarterly meeting in Boulder, Colo., the officials again and again stressed the commitment of FirstNet and AT&T, Inc., the authority’s network partner, to meeting the needs of public safety agencies, from applications to devices to radio access networks (RANs) to a dedicated public safety core network, and they suggested that the planned FirstNet offerings were superior to others, without mentioning Verizon by name.
“They’re not just doing this as a marketing tactic,” FirstNet CEO Mike Poth said of AT&T. “This is a commitment.” “Public safety is our only business,” he also said. “We only have one priority.” Mr. Poth also said that the FirstNet system “isn’t something that can be replicated overnight by switching on a switch.”
Last month, Verizon announced that it would offer priority and preemption to public safety customers and that it plans to deploy a dedicated public safety core network (TR Daily, Aug. 15). The offering could pose serious competition to FirstNet and AT&T, as many in the public safety community view Verizon’s network as more extensive and reliable and the carrier has a dominant share of the public safety market.
But Mr. Poth said at today’s meeting that public safety is not concerned “with market competition.” However, in response to Verizon’s announcement, some in the public safety community said that such competition was good for first responders.
Board Vice Chairman Jeff Johnson said today that AT&T has made commitments to FirstNet, “and we’re going to hold them accountable.” He also said that some public safety organizations are certified and others are not, suggesting that FirstNet was.
Board Chairwoman Sue Swenson noted that a number of vendors want to meet with FirstNet, but she said they face a high bar for working with FirstNet, saying that they must show they can benefit public safety. “FirstNet is here to advocate for public safety,” she said. “We will continue to be there for public safety.” She also said that public safety agencies run their organizations based on certain values, adding, “We support those values.”
In response to Verizon’s announcement last month, FirstNet said then that it “has consulted closely with public safety as a partner to develop this network. Thanks to their input, we are now delivering first responders a compelling network solution they’ve never had before — which includes true priority today — and we will deliver them ruthless preemption, a dedicated and encrypted public safety core network with local control capabilities, a dedicated FirstNet Public Safety Security Operations Center and public safety grade customer care. These services are unmatched and unique to public safety, and that is why we are seeing so much momentum with the FirstNet Network in the states and territories.”
At today’s meeting, the FirstNet officials spoke at length about specific features of the FirstNet system that they say will benefit public safety agencies.
FirstNet Chief Technology Officer Jeff Bratcher discussed FirstNet standards, applications, devices, RANs, and the public safety network core to be deployed in March 2018 – the same month as Verizon’s public safety core.
FirstNet President TJ Kennedy elaborated on technology innovation in the network and the entire “public safety ecosystem” that FirstNet is driving. He noted that devices on the network will be certified.
Also today, the FirstNet board approved a $73.5 million budget for fiscal year 2018, which begins Oct. 1, down 13% from the $84.6 million budget authorized for FY 2017.
FirstNet Chief Financial Officer Kim Farington said that the budget reduction is possible due to streamlined processes, resource optimization, and reduced reliance on contractors. “I think we continue the rigor around the budget planning that we have since the beginning,” Ms. Swenson said.
“This budget reflects strong financial management and allows us to continue making remarkable progress in the coming year toward delivering public safety’s network,” Mr. Poth said in a news release. “FirstNet is well positioned to deliver the financially sustainable network that we are entrusted with for the benefit of first responders and the communities they serve.”
At today’s meeting, there was also considerable discussion about the preparation for and response to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, as well as recent wildfires, with FirstNet board members and managers saying that the natural disasters highlight the importance of a nationwide public safety broadband network. FirstNet Chief Customer Officer Rich Reed said the preparation and response to the hurricanes will help FirstNet and AT&T evolve disaster response planning. He said FirstNet staffers were in emergency operations centers in Texas, Louisiana, and Tennessee over 10 days to observe the preparation and response to Hurricane Harvey. FirstNet will draft official lessons learned, Mr. Reed said. “AT&T did a really nice job at not only responding to the event but preparing for the event,” said Mr. Reed, noting the carrier’s pre-positioning of assets, preparing infrastructure for rising water levels in Houston, and responding afterward.
Regarding Hurricane Irma, FirstNet “chose not to put people into harm’s way,” Mr. Reed said, but it is providing any support after the fact.
Mr. Reed also commended AT&T for making “quality and priority” service available to first responders in the hurricane-impacted areas whether their states have opted in or not. Mr. Reed noted that FirstNet plans to deliver final state plans “as early as Sept. 19,” and he observed that 20 states and territories have said they will opt in. “20 is good,” he said, adding that “we have more coming in the very near future.”
Tom Sorley, chairman of FirstNet’s Public Safety Advisory Committee, said the PSAC’s tribal working group wants to explore drafting recommendations concerning rights of way on tribal lands. He also said the PSAC’s federal working group plans to have a series of workshops for federal agencies. The first one will be in El Paso, Texas.
Board member Kevin McGinnis, who is the board’s tribal liaison, noted that once states have made decisions on whether to opt in, FirstNet can engage in “nation-to-nation” consultations with tribes. He also noted that FirstNet’s tribal consultation policy is “virtually here.” FirstNet’s goal is to release the policy by the end of this month, a FirstNet spokesman told TR Daily today.
However, it was noted today that FirstNet only has two staff members who work on tribal issues and thus FirstNet may need to lean on AT&T’s tribal liaison employees to help with consultation and outreach.
Ms. Swenson, who chairs the board’s Governance and Personnel Committee, said that the committee has recommended candidates to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to fill board seats that opened last month. Those recommendations have been forwarded by NTIA to the Commerce Department, and an announcement could be made this month or next month, according to Ms. Swenson’s presentation. In the meantime, the board members whose seats have expired will continue to serve until Dec. 31 at the latest, but earlier if any replacements are named. NTIA received 31 submissions of interest to serve on the board.
One of the 12 nonpermanent board member seats is currently vacant, and appointments of four current nonpermanent board members expired last month.
Ms. Swenson also announced that Ron Hewitt, director of the Office of Emergency Communications, is now the Department of Homeland Security’s representative on the board. Ms. Swenson also commended a group of FirstNet employees for winning a Commerce Department Gold Medal Award. “This is really terrific news, and I think very well-deserved,” she said. —Paul Kirby, firstname.lastname@example.org