Public-Safety Broadband Network:FirstNet Has Made Progress Establishing the Network, but Should Address Stakeholder Concerns and Workforce Planning

What GAO Found

The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) has conducted key efforts to establish the network, namely releasing the request for proposal (RFP) for the network and awarding the network contract to AT&T. As the contractor, AT&T will be responsible for the overall design, development, production, operation, and evolution of the network. Additionally, FirstNet consulted with state and local, federal, and tribal stakeholders. State officials GAO contacted were generally satisfied with FirstNet’s efforts to engage them. However, tribal stakeholders GAO contacted expressed concern that FirstNet has not fully engaged in effective communication with tribes.

Read complete GAO Report.

FirstNet engaged tribes through a variety of mechanisms, such as through state points of contact and a working group, but tribes noted that individuals with first-hand knowledge of tribes’ experiences are unable to represent tribal views directly among FirstNet’s key decision makers. Although FirstNet is required to consult with tribes through state points of contact, a key principle of effective tribal communication is to seek full understanding of tribal concerns and reach consensus where possible. By fully exploring and proposing actions to address tribal stakeholders’ concerns, FirstNet could help improve its relations with tribes and better meet stakeholders’ needs.

According to stakeholders GAO contacted, FirstNet faces various challenges to ensure the network’s reliability, security, and interoperability. For example, stakeholders raised concerns related to:

  • providing coverage to rural areas, in buildings, or underground;
  • ensuring the network’s overall resiliency and cybersecurity; and
  • managing frameworks for user identity, credentialing of users, access management, and prioritization of users on the network.

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Andy Seybold’s Public Safety Advocate, July 20, 2017

MCPTT over LTE and Direct Mode
[Not quite] Mission Critical PTT over LTE is being tested and put into service for live network beta testing. Two things are missing from these trials and tests: a mission-critical or public safety-grade network for the Mission Critical Push-To-Talk application to run over and perhaps more importantly, the way forward to provide direct-mode communications. The UK’s LTE system for public safety to go live in 2020 and replace its existing Tetra system is probably, at the moment, the most robust of the existing LTE networks available.

Recently in France, the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) held MCPTT testing sessions and a number of vendors participated to see how well they performed and if they met the 3GPP Release of LTE version 13, which includes specifications for on-network push-to-talk services but does not yet address the issue of direct-mode on and off-network communications. In many instances, direct-mode PTT is as important and in some instances, more important than network-based PTT services. While I recently wrote an Advocate about PTT over LTE and over Land Mobile Radio (LMR) that detailed some of this information, there are a number of things happening in Europe and especially the United Kingdom that could have far reaching effects on how and when PTT services are actually deployed over LTE on and off-network systems.  Read the full blog here Continue reading

States Say They Need More Information about FirstNet Plan Before Opting In

SAN DIEGO – Public safety communications representatives from California and Colorado said they need clarity and more granular information about the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) state plan before they can recommend their governors choose to allow AT&T, Inc., FirstNet’s network partner, to build a radio access network in their states.

FirstNet was the topic of a panel July 16 held in conjunction with the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners’ (NARUC) Summer Policy Summit here this week. FirstNet and AT&T on June 19 delivered to states plans for AT&T to build and maintain their RANs as part of a nationwide interoperable public safety communications network envisioned by 2012 federal legislation.  The individual plans were made available on a restricted access basis through an online portal, but Patrick Mallon, assistant director-public safety communications for the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, said the plan doesn’t contain any additional information to what’s already been available.

“I do not believe the state plan that is being delivered to us is actionable,” he said. “I haven’t seen enough clarity, granularity in the state plan that we received.  There is more work that needs to be done, in my opinion. And there’s not enough in there that I can make a recommendation to the governor.” Continue reading

Parties Disagree on Suitability of FirstNet Interoperability Matrix

The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) and AT&T, Inc., FirstNet’s network partner, are urging the FCC to endorse FirstNet’s interoperability compliance matrix. But other parties are raising some concerns about it, or at least that the FCC’s review of alternative state plans will overlap with that of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).

An order adopted last month setting procedures for Commission review of alternative state FirstNet plans instructed the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau to seek comments on the matrix in an expedited fashion (TR Daily, June 22 and 23).

Congress has charged the FCC with reviewing whether alternative state plans would comply with minimum technical interoperability requirements. If the FCC approves a state plan, the state has to apply to NTIA for authority to secure a spectrum capacity lease agreement with FirstNet. States seeking to build their own radio access networks (RANs) may also apply to NTIA for grant funds to help cover those costs. In reviewing alternative plans, NTIA will seek to ensure that states make five technical and financial demonstrations. Continue reading

Rep. Brooks, Others Stress Need for NG-911 Funding

A House member and others who spoke at a luncheon today emphasized the importance of ensuring adequate funding for next-generation 911 (NG-911) deployment, including by preventing the diversion of 911 fees by states for other purposes. During the event, which was organized by the NG911 Institute, Rep. Susan Brooks (R., Ind.), whom House communications and technology subcommittee chairman Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R., Tenn.) has asked to take the lead on NG-911 and First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) issues, said that adequate funding is a key issue that the panel will focus on.

Rep. Blackburn “wants to be very focused on next-generation 911 and issues like FirstNet,” Rep. Brooks said. “Next-gen 911 needs to be ready.” Rep. Brooks also stressed that any legislation or policies must not thwart innovation. Policy-makers should ensure that any regulations “are more like guard rails, not speed bumps,” she said.

The lawmaker also emphasized the importance of continuing to focus on expanding broadband deployment, saying that one in six Indiana residents lives in an area with no broadband access. Continue reading

Charles Werner, Charlottesville, VA, Fire Chief Emeritus Writes on FirstNet–Opportunities and Challenges

Over a decade has passed since the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations addressing first responder communications and interoperability. Thanks to the countless hours and dedicated efforts of many, the public-safety community stands today on the cusp of a nationwide, dedicated public-safety network. The spectrum is in place, Congressional funding secured, and an independent FirstNet board, management and designated network operator have provided each state a plan for deployment of an interoperable broadband network for first responders.

It is actually not an overstatement to say this may be an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for public safety to dramatically improve the tools they have to protect the public. So, the opportunity side of the FirstNet network deployment is both unquestionable and appreciated by each state’s public-safety leaders.

But we must also deal seriously with the challenge side of the equation. FirstNet’s network focus from the very beginning has been on high-speed wireless data. Some first-responder organizations have felt, with significant justification, that several mission-critical capabilities, such as voice and enhanced location have not received the same attention. Yet those capabilities often have as great—or greater—benefit to first responders in fulfilling their missions.

In my career, I have served as both a firefighter and a chief, and the equally urgent need for mission-critical data, voice and location is a subject we all agree upon. We in the fire service also agree—as do police, EMS and other public-safety professionals—that, while major metropolitan areas have different needs than small cities and rural areas, a truly interoperable, nationwide network must plan for the needs of all citizens. With these facts in mind, here are my recommendations to address the three key FirstNet challenges each state must assess:

Coverage: FirstNet’s network deployment approach for major markets in each state is impressive and consistent with expectations. While AT&T, FirstNet’s chosen network partner, has many recognized strengths and capabilities, rural and small market network coverage does not stand out among those strengths.

The fact that AT&T is also making available network capacity on all of its existing LTE bands (ahead of LTE deployment on FirstNet’s 700 MHz Band 14 spectrum) partially addresses this concern, but AT&T also should use this opportunity to bolster its overall LTE network coverage. Understandably, network costs and economic realities have long dictated that new technologies appear later in less-populated markets than in urban ones. The key challenge for FirstNet and each state is to ensure that “later” does not become “never.”

Mission-critical voice: There are known technical challenges in providing mission-critical-voice services over an LTE data network, and no first responder should even consider to abandon existing and trusted voice alternatives until the new technology has been deployed, tested, proven and deemed trustworthy. Continue reading

Arkansas, Kentucky Latest States to Opt In to FirstNet

Arkansas and Kentucky became the latest states today to announce that they would allow AT&T, Inc., the First Responder Network Authority’s (FirstNet) network partner, to build a radio access network (RAN) in their states rather than attempting to contract to build them. Virginia and Wyoming became the first two opt-in states earlier this week (TR Daily, July 10 and 11).  “After an in-depth review of the FirstNet and AT&T plan by the appropriate state agencies and stakeholders, I have decided to approve their recommendation to opt in to the program,” Ark. Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R.) said. “As a former Undersecretary of Homeland Security after 9/11, I understand the necessity of a reliable stand-alone emergency communications system. FirstNet has received wide support among our community of first responders because it will enable us to respond more quickly during crises when seconds can mean the difference between life and death.”

Mr. Hutchinson sent FirstNet Chief Executive Officer Mike Poth a letter dated July 11 notifying him of the state’s opt-in decision. But the governor issued a news release and released the letter today during the National Governors Association’s Summer Meeting in Providence, R.I. Continue reading