FirstNet is the nation’s public safety broadband network. The network is being built through a first-of-its kind public-private partnership with the FirstNet Responder Network Authority (FirstNet Authority) and AT&T. FirstNet is a dedicated, nationwide communications platform that is modernizing critical communications for our nation’s first responders and those agencies that support public safety response.
The goal of this network is to enable emergency responders to communicate seamlessly so they can do their jobs safely, quickly and as efficiently as possible. Just like you and I want uninterrupted connectivity for technologies that have become important to our daily lives, so does government and public safety. But their connection is so much more important — lifesaving.
The FirstNet Authority takes our responsibility to oversee this network and drive innovation for responders very seriously because it is for the safety of communities and the safety of our responders.
The emerging global public safety broadband marketplace and the emerging opportunities range from smart cities to the internet of things (IoT). Public safety faces communications challenges, and the FirstNet solution has power to help address the needs of America’s first responders.
FirstNet’s momentum continues. Cities are integrating FirstNet into their public safety services and smart communities planning. Other communities are also experiencing the benefits of a network that provides always-on priority and preemption, reliable high-speed connections and interoperability — from the New York Police Department to the Chicago Police Department, the Miami-Dade Fire Department in Florida, the city of San Jose, California and the Las Vegas, Nevada, area.
FirstNet also focuses on expanding access to rural first responders. Together with AT&T, we’ve launched new FirstNet cell sites in Maryland, Minnesota, West Virginia, Wyoming and many more states.
I’ve been involved in FirstNet from the time it was developed into legislation and passed into law. It has been amazing to see the journey of FirstNet going from concept to reality. We aren’t stopping. We are only scratching the surface, and there is much more work to be done.
But this is the space we are working in — government is moving a lot faster. The public sector wants innovation, and they are seeing the benefits.
FirstNet was brought about by the public safety community fighting for its own network because commercial carriers weren’t meeting its needs. They pushed for FirstNet, and now their network is moving markets.
We’ve seen commercial carriers competing as never before to gain public safety’s business. We’ve seen industry rising to the occasion for our first responders with new devices, apps and solutions for use on FirstNet.
This time last year, we had 425,000 connections on FirstNet, AT&T had deployed 40 percent of Band 14 (FirstNet’s dedicated spectrum for public safety) and approved apps and devices were starting to grow. In one year, we’ve gone to 1 million connections, 75 percent of Band 14 rolled out to communities nationwide, and more than 100 apps and 100 devices.
The marketplace is delivering for public safety, and we are seeing public safety respond. There is now competition and choice. Public safety, in turn, is embracing FirstNet.
FirstNet is also delivering new solutions that were never available to public safety before to enhance coverage on demand. This is an important aspect of a public safety network because emergencies can happen anywhere.
It began with our fleet of dedicated satellite cell on light trucks (SatCOLTs) and cells on wheels (COWs). These are available on request at all hours and at no cost for FirstNet agencies. AT&T is also going above and beyond this to provide three flying COWs. AT&T also recently announced the FirstNet One — a 55-foot aerostat, or blimp — for use by FirstNet subscribers in the aftermath of major disasters.
FirstNet One can fly as high as 1,000 feet high, potentially providing more than two times the coverage area compared with other deployable solutions, such as SatCOLTs. It is able to stay aloft for about two weeks before needing additional helium top-off.
The aerostat is meant for use in the aftermath of major disasters, such as what we saw with Hurricane Michael in 2018. One SatCOLT remained in Florida for five months after the hurricane. Now, AT&T could provide the aerostat and free up three to five SatCOLTs for use for other emergencies.
It is clear, the FirstNet public-private partnership is driving innovation.
We are going to continue to make waves in the marketplace. We have a 25-year contract with AT&T. We are going to continue to push them to innovate for public safety, and 2020 is going to be another big year for public safety:
FirstNet push-to-talk is coming.
We will continue working toward location-based services based on mission-critical standards, along with mission-critical video and data standards.
The FirstNet Authority recently took the first step to begin evolving the FirstNet core to prepare for 5G. We’ll ensure that our dedicated public safety core is ready when 5G is public safety-ready.
All of this is preparing us for a future where the internet of things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI) will help improve public safety operations. That will be a focus of the FirstNet Authority in 2020. We are looking for innovative collaborations with other government agencies and the private sector to help move the needle on modernizing critical communications technology.
Recently, we’ve worked across agencies within the U.S. Department of Commerce to develop a $1 million grant program to accelerate the development of response and resiliency technologies. The Accelerate R2 Challenge will help to develop a network of entrepreneurs to drive public safety solutions forward.
We also have a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the University of Mississippi Medical Center to share lessons learned for rural telehealth, and through a National Institute of Standard and Technology (NIST) Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR) division grant, MIT used our lab in Boulder, Colorado, to test real-time video analytics over FirstNet.
These are all efforts that we are using to fulfill the FirstNet Authority Roadmap, which describes a path for advancing FirstNet built on feedback from public safety stakeholders with an eye for where the technology market is headed. The FirstNet Authority Roadmap is our vision and strategy to guide our programs, activities and investments back into the network so that FirstNet continues to evolve based on the feedback of the public safety community.
Collaboration with industry and with our government partners is key to our roadmap. I hope to be working with many in the coming year to accelerate innovation for first responders.
I just can’t wait to see what the next year brings for transforming public safety communications. Things are moving quickly — there are some who thought that FirstNet would never happen. Now it is here, and it has changed the game.
Maybe you have been standing on the sidelines, waiting to see if this FirstNet thing would work out. Things are in motion. First responders are seeing the benefits of FirstNet in their daily operations.
Our goal at the FirstNet Authority is to oversee this network, to ensure it delivers, and to drive innovation. We want to make a connection between agencies and industries so that responders can truly get the lifesaving technologies they need.
For those from industry, I encourage you to learn more about the opportunities to deliver for public safety. For those in government serving the cause of public safety, the FirstNet Authority is honored to support you. We have many public safety programs; we would love to have you involved.
Edward Parkinson is the executive director of external affairs at the First Responder Network Authority, an independent authority within the U.S. Department of Commerce. Parkinson also has performed the non-executive functions of the chief executive officer (CEO) since serving as acting CEO from October 2018 to May 2019. Edited for length and style, this article is derived from remarks for delivery by Parkinson on Jan. 10 at the CES Government convention in Las Vegas. CES Government is the technology conference partner of CES (formerly an acronym for Consumer Electronics Show), an annual trade show organized by the Consumer Technology Association.
This article originally ran in the April 2020 issue of Above Ground Level magazine