Urgent Matters

Go, or No Go? New LA-RICS public-safety LTE plan gives NTIA, FirstNet a lot to consider

by Donny Jackson
Apr 23, 2015

There has been no decision yet from NTIA about the fate of the LA-RICS public-safety LTE project. That's understandable, because there are a lot of factors to consider.

Early last week, Los Angeles Regional Interoperable Communications System (LA-RICS) officials submitted a revised version of its proposed public-safety LTE system—known as a corrective action plan (CAP)—to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) in hopes of jumpstarting the troubled project.

After elected officials for both Los Angeles County and city of Los Angeles voted to support the new CAP, some expected the new LA-RICS plan to be early this week. It has not. Frankly, this is understandable, because there are several complex factors to consider.

For those not familiar with the LA-RICS project, here’s some background: NTIA administers the $154.6 million federal Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grant that is funding most of the proposed LTE network. NTIA also is the umbrella organization within the U.S. Department of Commerce that houses FirstNet, which expects to integrate early-builder networks like LA-RICS into its nationwide broadband network.

During the past several months, multiple smaller cities in the Los Angeles area pulled out of the LA-RICS regional project, reducing the number of sites in the LTE network design from 231 to 177. In late March, Los Angeles County halted construction of LTE sites on county-owned property for two weeks, and the city made an even stronger statement the following week.

In the wake of these actions, NTIA suspended project construction on April 3, directed LA-RICS to submit a new plan within 10 days and stipulated that the city, county, NTIA and FirstNet all needed to agree to it before it would lift the suspension.

Fueling this heightened sense of urgency is the fact that the federal grant is set to expire on Sept. 30. This is not an administrative deadline that NTIA officials can adjust on their own. This date is part of the stimulus-package law that established the BTOP grants, so it literally would require an act of Congress to grant LA-RICS a time extension. Los Angeles officials are in Washington, D.C., this week to explore all options, but getting Congress to approve anything is a steep uphill climb.

Last week, the city and county signed off on the CAP that calls for 82 cell sites—less than half the 177 site proposed in March and almost 65% less than the 231 that Motorola Solutions was going to build when it signed the contract 13 months ago. So, on the surface, it appears that the ball is in the court of NTIA and FirstNet.

What are they looking for? Some sources have argued that FirstNet “needs a win,” so there is incentive to proceed with the project under almost any circumstances.

I don’t see it that way. If built, an LA-RICS LTE network will be the largest public-safety LTE network in the nation, and—right or wrong—there will be a perception among many that “this is what we can expect from a FirstNet system.” From this perspective, having LA-RICS built is only a “win” if the network performs well.

Indeed, FirstNet Chairwoman Sue Swenson offered the following clues before LA-RICS delivered its revised plan:

“We’ll want to make sure that whatever design the team comes up with is not just a patchwork quilt and that we’re getting a broadband experience, because that’s what we want to learn,” Swenson said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “There’s going to be criteria that people are going to be looking for.

“FirstNet and NTIA are going to be working with LA-RICS to review this. We’re not going to let something go through just to do a project—that’s a waste of taxpayer money, so we’re not going to do that.”

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