FirstNet probes network design possibilities

Assigned the task of organizing an interoperable, nationwide public safety network for first responders, FirstNet is exploring how to structure the network, as well as how to pay for it.

FirstNet logo.

What: FirstNet, the Commerce Department entity charged with organizing an interoperable, nationwide public safety network for first responders using high-speed LTE spectrum, is asking vendors for their thoughts on how to assemble the infrastructure.

Why: Public safety crises, from the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to last year's Navy Yard shooting, have turned the spotlight on the lack of interoperability in the communications equipment of first responders. FirstNet, which was authorized by Congress in 2012, is designed to solve the problem by giving emergency personnel access to a nationwide network, while enhancing functionality to allow the transmission of video, text and data across the network, in addition to voice communications. Congress authorized a grant spectrum in the 700MHz band and up to $7 billion, to be realized in a reverse auction of spectrum.

While $7 billion is a lot of money, it's not enough to build a nationwide mobile network, with towers, backhaul, data centers and infrastructure from scratch. Congress specified that FirstNet seek to leverage existing assets in designing its network. FirstNet will also get user fees from states that use the network – although not all 50 states are expected to opt in, and there's no requirement for them to do so. There are also plans to lease back overcapacity to commercial users to fund operations, but in such a way that gives emergency response users priority on the network.

To tackle these questions, FirstNet released a request for information about its comprehensive network solution on Sept. 17 – the latest in a series of RFIs that have covered devices to operate on the network, network partners, and core applications. The agency wants feedback on the scope of a potential network award – the benefits and disadvantages of choosing a nationwide prime or small group of primes, compared to spreading out the work in a disaggregated fashion. There are the questions of how to identify and incorporate existing assets into FirstNet, how these will be obtained, and at what risk to the overall success of the project. The network must also be interoperable with systems in states that opt out of the FirstNet solution.

In addition to the knotty infrastructure questions, FirstNet is also seeking ideas on how to self-finance, as is contemplated in the legislation. The agency is seeking ideas on "innovative business solutions and revenue sharing structures" that will allow FirstNet to establish and maintain revenue streams to keep the network going once the $7 billion in funding is spent, while keeping pricing reasonable for law enforcement users.

Responses to the RFI are due by Oct. 17.

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