April 19, 2016 — FirstNet has pushed back the deadline for proposals for the deployment of the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network by two and a half weeks, from May 13 to May 31, 2016. FirstNet initially issued its Request for Proposals for the network on January 13 of this year.
The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) was created by Congress in the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012. The goal of FirstNet is to deploy a nationwide public safety network. FirstNet has three elements that are necessary for a nationwide network, according to Anna M. Gomez, a partner at the Wiley Rein law firm in Washington.
Gomez spoke in March at the Network Infrastructure Forum in Las Vegas. From 2009 to 2013, she was deputy assistant secretary for communications and information at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce. She was with NTIA when it created FirstNet, and she played a role in that creation.
“The first element Congress gave FirstNet is access to 20 megahertz of 700-MHz spectrum,” Gomez said. The spectrum has a few narrowband users in it, and FirstNet is in the process of clearing those users. The second element is $7 billion in seed funding for the nationwide network. And the third element is governance, which Congress established by creating FirstNet as an independent authority housed within NTIA.
“The FirstNet network has to be secure, hardened and ubiquitous to meet the needs of public safety,” Gomez said. “It has to build a single core network and a radio access network. It is supposed to use existing commercial, state, local and tribal infrastructure.”
In January, FirstNet issued its request for proposals (RFP) from potential builders and operators for its network, and responses are due this month. Gomez said FirstNet is going to issue a single award and, therefore, it wants bids for a nationwide comprehensive solution. The FirstNet RFP is objectives-based, not requirements-based, and Gomez said that means FirstNet stated 16 objectives that it wants bidders to meet and gave bidders the flexibility to figure out how to do so. “It’s a way to encourage innovation from bidders, more so than a requirements-based RFP,” she said.
Excess Network Capacity
FirstNet has about $6.5 billion to pay for network deployment, and Gomez said it will allow the winning bidder to keep fees it generates from providing service to public safety or, on a secondary basis, to other users. In exchange for that, the winning bidder will have access to the excess network capacity from FirstNet. The winning bidder will have to make annual payments to FirstNet for the excess network capacity that it uses during the 25-year term of the contract. FirstNet is not allowed to compete directly via retail offerings to consumers.
The authority has to fund itself through fees, reinvest excess revenue in the network, and consult with states, territories and tribes. States can decide to deploy their own radio access networks, opting out of the nationwide network.
Consultation and Selling
Gomez said although FirstNet has been consulting with and will continue to consult with the states, territories and tribes as part of its statutory obligation, the consultation also is part of its effort to sell its deployment plan to each of the states. In their responses to the RFP, the bidders are supposed to reveal their plans on a state-by-state and territory-by-territory basis.
FirstNet intends to award the contract around Nov. 1, with the first task of providing plans for state and territorial deployment due about six months later. The FirstNet network is to achieve 100 percent coverage within five years of award. The authority wants to initially operate as a mobile virtual network operator and eventually transition to the 700-MHz spectrum, which is called Band 14.
No Mandate to Buy Service
There is no mandate that public safety entities at the local, state or federal level must buy service from FirstNet. Gomez said that means FirstNet needs to provide a network that meets the needs of public safety in an affordable manner. Although the RFP doesn’t have it as a requirement, FirstNet anticipates that some type of satellite communications will have to be used to serve rural areas that cannot be reached otherwise.
It will be up to the winning bidder to commercialize the use of excess network capacity without leaving its customers dissatisfied when public safety agency use of the network peaks during emergencies, necessitating some limits on non-public safety access. “Public safety gets to use the network all of the time,” Gomez said. “Different levels of preemption will be required, depending on the emergency. It would take an extraordinary incident to completely shut down commercial access.”
Land Mobile Radio
Meanwhile, there is no mandate for public safety agencies to stop using land mobile radio systems. Gomez said the FirstNet network will be a data network, and voice communication would continue on land mobile radio. “There is a push to formulate standards to support mission-critical voice communication on the national broadband network, but the necessary standards are nowhere near becoming a reality,” she said. “At that point, I’m sure there will be discussions about continued land mobile radio use from a policy perspective.”
If FirstNet awards the contract on Nov. 1, the state and territorial deployment plans will follow about May 1, 2017, with opt-in decisions by states due about July 2017, the first coverage milestone of 20 percent coverage for Band 14 set for Nov. 1, 2017, and 100 percent coverage to be achieved about November 2021.