The Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 created a new independent authority within the U.S. Department of Commerce, the First Responders Network Authority (FirstNet), and charged it with constructing and operating a nationwide public safety broadband network.  The legislation also budgeted $7 billion of spectrum-auction revenue to fund the new network – an amount that some industry observers believed would represent only a down payment toward the total cost of constructing and operating a stand-alone wireless broadband network, which some have estimated at $53 billion over a ten year period.  Developing the new network will create a number of opportunities and challenges for infrastructure providers, communications service providers, and other vendors in the commercial and public safety sectors.

FirstNet recently took the first step toward developing Requests for Proposals for this massive infrastructure project by issuing a Notice of Inquiry concerning the design and architecture of the new, high-capacity, nationwide wireless broadband network for use by first responders and other public safety officials.

The government agency overseeing FirstNet, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), also invited input on a conceptual network architecture presentation by FirstNet board member and former wireless executive F. Craig Farrill.   Mr. Farrill’s presentation concluded that FirstNet should rely heavily on commercial networks because building a stand-alone network built exclusively for public safety use would prove “unworkable.”   Mr. Farrill reached his conclusion based on a variety of financial and logistical reasons, including:

  • High Construction Cost
  • Higher Annual Operating Costs
  • Increased Infrastructure Construction
  • Long Construction Period
  • Lower Reliability
  • Limited Manpower

Mr. Farrill also argued that a stand-alone network would prove inconsistent with the statutory framework authorizing FirstNet.  In addition to seeking comment on Mr. Farrill’s presentation, NTIA specifically encouraged comment on alternative proposals or concepts that:

  1. meet public safety’s requirements for priority, quality of service, and preemption features;
  2. use, to the extent possible, existing radio access network and core network infrastructure installed by commercial mobile operators in order to maximize the coverage and performance delivered to public safety while minimizing the capital expenditures;
  3. reach operational capability as quickly as possible; and
  4. enable voice services (cellular telephony and push-to-talk (PTT)) both within the FirstNet network as well as to/from other commercial networks, including the public switched telephone network (PSTN).

While it remains to be seen what shape the new FirstNet Nationwide Network or FNN will take, the fifteen-member board started quickly and has already provoked renewed debate about the proper role of FirstNet in the building and managing of the public safety network.   Whatever the final decision on the scope of FirstNet’s activity, the Board seems intent on developing new and innovative proposals for public safety that maximize the limited Federal funds available.  Comments in response to the Notice are due November 1, 2012.