FirstNet is now underway


By Jonathan Nally
Wednesday, 19 April, 2017


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FirstNet is now officially underway, with the AT&T selected as prime contractor.

The United States’ nationwide wireless broadband network dedicated to America’s first responders, FirstNet, is now really off and running after many years of discussion and preparation. On 30 March, the First Responder Network Authority announced that AT&T had been selected as the prime contractor to build the network and operate it over a span of 25 years.

The communications infrastructure will provide for the day-to-day needs of public safety officers in disaster response and recovery, and securing of large events. It will also make 20 MHz of prime broadband spectrum available for private-sector development.

“Today is a landmark day for public safety across the nation and shows the incredible progress we can make through public–private partnerships,” said US Department of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.

“FirstNet is a critical infrastructure project that will give our first responders the communications tools they need to keep America safe and secure. This public–private partnership will also spur innovation and create over 10,000 new jobs in this cutting-edge sector.”

The main points of the 25-year agreement between FirstNet and AT&T are:

  • FirstNet will provide 20 MHz of spectrum and make success-based payments of US$6.5 billion (raised from previous FCC spectrum auctions) over the next five years to support the network buildout.
  • AT&T will spend about US$40 billion over the life of the contract to build, deploy, operate and maintain the network, with a focus on ensuring robust coverage for public safety.
  • Additionally, AT&T will connect FirstNet users to the company’s telecommunications network assets, valued at more than $180 billion.

AT&T can use FirstNet’s spectrum when it is not being used by public safety for other, commercial purposes. The company will prioritise first responders over any other commercial users on the network.

“This public–private partnership is a major step forward for the public safety community as we begin building the broadband network they fought for and deserve,” said FirstNet Chair Sue Swenson.

“FirstNet and AT&T will deliver high-speed connectivity to help millions of first responders operate faster, safer and more effectively when lives are on the line.”

An urgent need

FirstNet has resulted from a key recommendation of the 9/11 Commission regarding communications used by police, fire and emergency medical personnel. During the terror attacks on New York and Washington, first responders had enormous difficulty communicating with one another, and particularly between different agencies and units.

The US public safety community strongly advocated for the wireless broadband network.

At present, first responders across the US use more than 10,000 different networks for voice communications. These networks often do not interoperate, which severely limits their ability to communicate with each other when responding to a situation.

“This unique partnership brings together FirstNet as the voice of public safety and a global technology team with a proven track record and commitment to public safety,” said FirstNet CEO Mike Poth.

“Together, FirstNet and AT&T will move with precision and urgency to deliver this much-needed infrastructure to those who need it the most: our first responders.”

A firefighter using an iPad inside a fire truck

According to AT&T, in addition to providing a nationwide, seamless, IP-based, high-speed mobile communications network that will give first responders priority access, the network will help:

  • further the development of public safety-focused IoT and smart city solutions such as providing near real-time information on traffic conditions to determine the fastest route to an emergency
  • enable advanced capabilities such as wearable sensors and cameras for police and firefighters, and camera-equipped drones and robots that can deliver near real-time images of events such as fires, floods or crimes.

The company said in a statement that it will innovate and evolve the network to keep the public safety community at the forefront of technology advances. For example, as 5G network capabilities develop in the coming years, FirstNet and AT&T will work together to provide exponential increases in the speed with which video and data travel across the FirstNet network.

AT&T has assembled a team that includes Motorola Solutions, General Dynamics, Sapient Consulting and Inmarsat Government.

The public–private partnership is expected to create more than 10,000 new jobs.

Next steps

According to FirstNet documentation, the authority and AT&T will now focus on building the core network and delivering ‘State Plans’. The FirstNet team will “develop and deliver an individualised State Plan to each of the 50 states, five territories, and District of Columbia detailing the proposed network deployment in their jurisdictions”. Legislation stipulates that once a governor receives a State Plan, he or she will have 90 days to either opt in or opt out.

If a state opts in or takes no action on the State Plan within 90 days of receiving it, FirstNet will issue a task order to begin deployment of the radio access network (RAN) portion of the FirstNet network in the state at no cost to the state. States do not have to wait the full 90 days to make an opt-in decision; they can opt in at any point after receiving their State Plans. The opt-in path is a low-risk option that will support faster delivery of services to the state’s public safety community and help create an interoperable, highly secure, sustainable nationwide network for public safety. According to FirstNet, the earlier a state opts in, the sooner work can begin.

If the state elects not to participate in the FirstNet RAN deployment, it must provide notice to FirstNet within 90 days of receiving the State Plan and, within 180 days of such notice, it must develop and complete an RFP. Following that, it must submit an alternative plan to the FCC for the construction, maintenance, operation and improvement of the RAN in the state. The RAN must be interoperable with the nationwide network. Before the state’s RAN deployment can begin, the FCC must approve the alternative plan and, if approved, the state must then apply to the NTIA to enter into a spectrum capacity lease with FirstNet. Opt-out states will assume all technical, operational and financial risks and responsibilities related to building their own RAN for the next 25 years.

FirstNet has said that it expects to deliver the final State Plans simultaneously to each governor through an online portal as soon as the third quarter of 2017. Once the State Plans are delivered to the governors, the 90‐day review and decision period will start.

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