Urgent Matters

FirstNet faces monumental challenge as state consultations get set to begin

by Donny Jackson
Jul 10, 2014

To date, FirstNet has done a good job of keeping all of its options available by not making any commitments regarding its business plan or network design. But some key decisions in at least one of these areas will be needed to make significant progress on the other.

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

We’re not going to get into the science of the age-old question in this column, but the fact is that all theories point to either the chicken or the egg existing first, enabling the first thing to create the other and begin a cycle that generates a significant portion of the diets consumed by most humans today. What you don’t hear theorized very often is that the chicken and egg were created simultaneously.

What does all of this have to do with modern communications, particularly those serving public safety and potentially other entities that rely on critical communication?

Nothing directly, but the ancient dilemma does point to an issue that will have to be addressed at some point in the state-consultation meeting between FirstNet and representatives of 56 states and territories that will begin on July 29 (the meeting with state of Maryland representatives originally was going to begin on July 31, but it has been rescheduled, according to FirstNet officials). It may not have to be addressed in early meetings, but it will have to happen at some point.

The issue is the relationship between the business/usage model and the network design of any modern communications system. Unlike the chicken and the egg, the relationship usually is pretty clear: after a need is identified, a business model (or a usage model, in the case of many private LMR network owned by government entities) is established, and the network is designed in a manner to fulfill the promise of the business model.

What makes FirstNet so intriguing is that it does not have a business model—at least not one that has been disclosed publicly. There is a general acknowledgement that the $7 billion earmarked for the project will not be enough to deploy a nationwide broadband network for first responders, much less sustain it with maintenance and upgrades for eternity, so partnerships and monetizing excess capacity on the network will be crucial.

But there are issues. For instance, who are the priority users who will subscribe to the network? Beyond the traditional public-safety personnel of police, fire and EMS, it’s really not certain what groups will qualify as priority users; that’s why FirstNet will be conducting a comment period to examine that and other issues later this year.

This matters, because whether a particular sector is deemed to be a priority user could certainly alter the dynamics of potential user groups and partnership talks, regardless of the sectors we’re talking about—utilities, transportation, healthcare or other critical-infrastructure groups.

Just to use utilities as an example, we’ve written multiple times in this space that utilities and public safety have a terrific opportunity to forge a beneficial partnership, because they have similar reliability standards and synergistic assets that they can bring to the table.

But many utility representatives have stated that they are not interested in partnering with FirstNet, if utilities will be treated solely as secondary users that can be kicked off the system entirely when the network faces capacity issues in a given cell sector. On the other hand, deeming that all traffic from utilities should be prioritized would seem to be a mistake, especially communications traffic from applications that is geared toward convenience and revenue generation.

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