Urgent Matters

Some things we don’t know yet that could impact FirstNet’s ultimate success (updated)

by Donny Jackson

Table of Contents:

Jan 12, 2016

Nothing happens in a vacuum. As we wait for FirstNet to release its RFP, here are some questions that FirstNet is not positioned to address right now, but finding answers to them could be critical to the success of the nationwide public-safety broadband initiative. (Updated with correction about spectrum-cap impact)

In last week’s column, we examined some of the key questions that potential bidders hope will be answered in FirstNet’s request for proposal (RFP)—a document that was scheduled to be released this week but has not been announced yet.

But, as powerful as FirstNet is, it does not control all aspects of this project, even in some areas that are very important to potential bidders and other stakeholders, including public-safety agencies. Some important items fall outside the scope of the FirstNet mission established by Congress in 2012, while others are the jurisdiction of other federal agencies or the oversight responsibility simply has not been determined yet.

Here are a few examples:

How quickly can mission-critical-voice services be offered on the FirstNet system? As a data-only network, the advantages that FirstNet offers public safety are not that significant, particularly with recent announcements from carriers that they will offer priority services to first-responder agencies.

FirstNet should be able to offer preemptive access, but that effectively will be different from priority service in only the rarest of occasions, and it’s questionable whether FirstNet will be able to beat commercial-carrier offers in terms of price and coverage, particularly when service is first offered.

However, if FirstNet can offer both public-safety-grade data and trusted mission-critical voice—thereby allowing public-safety agencies to reduce their dependence on private LMR networks, if not eliminate them entirely—then the value proposition would change dramatically, because much more local budget money could be made available to pay for subscriptions.

Under the current timeline, the standard for mission-critical voice over LTE should be completed during the first half of this year, and equipment leveraging the technology should be available during 2018—possibly sooner. But the bigger question is how well the solution will work, and how long it will take for public safety to trust it in the field, where lives are on the line. If the answer is positive, the opportunity for the winning bidder could be enormous.

Exactly what role will the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) play in pricing? Last month, NTIA initiated a proceeding regarding proposed rules associated with its role of annually reviewing fees collected by FirstNet in an effort to ensure that FirstNet is self-sustaining financially, provides competitive pricing and does not collect an excessive amount of operating funds (FirstNet can determine the size of its capital reserves). Comments in the proceeding are due on Thursday, and NTIA plans to issue another rulemaking proposal that is expected to provide more details about NTIA’s pricing role.

For potential bidders already nervous about committing to a long-term deal (20 to 25 years) with FirstNet, the notion that NTIA could directly or indirectly control service pricing is bothersome, according to industry sources. By law, FirstNet is an “independent authority,” but NTIA is a full-fledged government agency, and having so much government involvement in pricing could discourage private-sector bidders.

But some argue that NTIA’s review would have very limited impact, because NTIA plans to address only fees that are collected directly by FirstNet. Under the structure proposed in the draft RFP, FirstNet only would collect quarterly payments from the partner selected in the RFP process, so items like network subscription fees arguably would not be subject to NTIA’s annual review.

Regardless what NTIA’s final pricing rules are, establishing them as soon as possible likely will be important to potential bidders.

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Discuss this Blog Entry 1

on Jan 25, 2016

Your concerns are reasons why it may be best for states to Opt Out of this program and allow them to operate with some FirstNet oversight. Either way you look into this, there has to be some local control as well. We keep overlooking the importance of local municipalities and counties to be actively participants in FirstNet upfront decision making and going forward governance (currently only the Mayor of Houston is elected that serves on the Board). I also have some reservations that all these Federal agencies and bodies may not have my communities best interest in mine or unique characteristics. Granted we may never get it 100% correct, but it becomes harder to achieve when you remove local control from these discussions and take into consideration home ruled communities.

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