FirstNet: The American dream

A national network to provide mission-critical broadband has long been a priority of the US PPDR community. TETRA Today follows FirstNet's efforts to make it a reality

A national network to provide mission-critical broadband has long been a priority of the US PPDR community. TETRA Today follows FirstNet’s efforts to make it a reality

Ed_Parkinson_Credit_FirstNet.jpgFirstNet owes its origins to a 9/11 Commission recommendation calling for interoperable communications for all US first responders. Following successful lobbying by around 44 American public safety groups Congress passed legislation to create the FirstNet organisation. According to Edward Parkinson (pictured right), director of government affairs at FirstNet, it received “three core buckets” from Congress: $7 billion from the sale of the AWS3 band, governance (it reports to a board rather than a secretary, despite being a US federal government entity) and the “jewel in the crown” – 20 MHz of spectrum in the 700 MHz band for broadband, referred to as Band 14.

“We are the sole licensee to that spectrum and it’s ubiquitous across every market in the United States,” Parkinson adds.

FirstNet’s mandate is to provide nationwide coverage, including for rural and remote areas. However, Parkinson notes that there will be certain areas that it will not be able to cover, such as parts of Alaska. FirstNet is currently working towards the ‘four nines’ (99.99) standard for reliability, “but in time we hope to see that improve up to five nines [99.999] in certain aspects”.

While FirstNet’s overarching goal is to provide US PPDR users with mission-critical broadband, its partner (which will be responsible for building and operating the network and attracting users to the system) will be able to monetise the network’s excess capacity. It will do this by allowing use by non-PPDR users and competing with existing carriers. The partner will receive all of the users’ monthly subscription fees.

“We’re not building a network for 15 million users, we’re building a network for 110 million users because we have to be able to monetise the value of the spectrum that Congress has given us,” says Parkinson.

However, the PPDR community will have priority and pre- emption built in.

“If another Boston Bombing or Hurricane Katrina happens and all of a sudden public safety needs full access to the 20 MHz spectrum they will get it. In both an opt-in and opt-out situation the full 20 MHz is available to public safety all the time. However, in a day-to-day situation they will probably use only minimal parts of that spectrum. The partners know this going into the opportunity.” While for many PPDR users FirstNet will be their first experience of sharing a network, Parkinson doesn’t think this will be an issue.

He also explains that like a commercial network, FirstNet will have to evolve during the transition from 4G to 5G and that it has to make sure that the partner it selects can also evolve with the network.

Between 2013 and January 2016 FirstNet was in the planning and preparation phase. Since then it has focused on consultation and procurement, the latter in the form of a Request for Proposals (RFP). The offeror whose response to the RFP is deemed to be the best will become FirstNet’s partner and will be responsible for network delivery and its operation.

“We’ve gone down a different route [to the normal federal procurement process] as this has never been done before and is far too complicated for any one vendor,” says Parkinson.

Aside from the operational benefits of having access to reliable mission-critical broadband, one long-term benefit of FirstNet (once it is fully rolled out) is that it will allow PPDR users from different states to communicate seamlessly with one another during incidents that require them to work together.

“The fires that are happening in California, for example, what often happens is that firefighters from other states come to assist,” says Parkinson. “When that happens the Californian fire department hands out caches of radios. In the future, with FirstNet-enabled devices, they’ll simply be able to fly in, turn on their devices, join the talk group, and interoperate.”

FirstNet has been working closely with each state’s single point of contact representative by holding a kick-off meeting with them, encouraging each state to develop governance bodies, who will likely take receipt of FirstNet’s state plans and will advise the state governors on whether to opt in or opt out. There are consultation task teams from various states and territories, which were set up to discuss subjects in which FirstNet is seeking additional input. There are also executive briefings so that those advising the governors will be aware of the latest information.

Parkinson adds that the request for proposals has been informed by a great deal of information submitted to FirstNet by the states in 2015, which covers where first responders are located in each state, their coverage and capacity requirements, and so on. The states have the option to update this information this year if they wish.

“Prior to the procurement, we reached out to as many large vendors, carriers, systems integrators, and potential bidders as possible to try to educate them about the opportunity... Initially, especially two to three years ago, the vendor community wasn’t quite sure how we were going to do this. So our CEO Mike Poth and our president TJ Kennedy spent a lot of time thinking about the possible structure of this procurement so we could educate the vendor community about what we were thinking.

“We held at least three industry days and we also had a number of webinars where we encouraged the vendor community to dial in and ask questions,” Parkinson continues. “We also released draft RFP documents 12 months before the final RFP went out and allowed the vendor community to provide comments.

“We held open days to talk though those responses. We took numerous steps to educate the vendor community as well as the general public sector... I think a lot of people had various ideas on how to do this but we had to try and extract as much value from the procurement as possible, and I think that interaction with the vendor community went a long way in doing that,” he adds.


FirstNet is looking to get the first public safety users onto its network by 2018; credit: FirstNet

Who’s in the running?
The deadline for submissions was May. According to Parkinson FirstNet has received a number of bids, is currently evaluating the entries and is looking to announce the winner on November 1. While he couldn’t tell TETRA Today who the offerors are, some have announced their involvement.

AT&T’s participation was confirmed in a second quarter conference call (according to a Seeking Alpha transcript seen by TETRA Today).

pdvWireless said this in a statement released June 30: “As announced previously, [pdvWireless] together with its consortium partners, submitted a proposal to the FirstNet request for proposals and continues to work through the official bidding process”.It has acquired Sprint Corporation’s nationwide 900 MHz spectrum licences and is pushing for the Federal Communications Commission to re-align the 900 MHz band “to create spectrum capable of serving the broadband needs of countless organisations within an array of industries”.

Rivada Mercury – a consortium led by Rivada Networks that includes Harris Corporation, Ericsson and Nokia – has also shown interest. Rivada Networks’ Dynamic Spectrum Arbitrage-Tiered Priority Access (DSATPA) technology allows broadband capacity to be bought and sold dynamically, so carriers would be continually in competition with each other for FirstNet’s spectrum. Fujitsu Network Communications would act as the primary backhaul design and deployment provider for the network, if the consortium is selected by FirstNet, and Hughes Network Systems would provide satellite connectivity.

In addition, Motorola Solutions’ CEO Greg Brown said: “The idea of FirstNet around interoperable data in public safety we feel pretty good about. The responses to the RFP are due back May 13th. We’ve had interest from a few different partners. We do plan on participating as you probably would expect in that response,” during a conference call with investors on February 22.

When TETRA Today asked Motorola Solutions to elaborate on the above a spokesperson said: “Motorola Solutions has acknowledged its participation in the FirstNet RFP, and we have no further comment.” As it is possible for a company to participate in the FirstNet RFP as part of a team of bidders it cannot be assumed that Motorola Solutions is seeking to be an offeror on its own.

While it has not so far indicated that it is looking to participate, Verizon (a MNO) has more reason to pay attention to FirstNet than most because it owns 22 MHz of spectrum in Band 13 (directly adjacent to FirstNet’s spectrum). It was also last year tipped by Evercore ISI to be the most likely candidate to roll out FirstNet, and other commentators have highlighted its strong rural coverage as a point in its favour.

It seems that FirstNet has many factors to weigh up. A key consideration will be whether it is willing to take a punt on new technology that might best unlock Band 14’s true value or whether it will prefer to focus on the strength of potential partners’ balance sheets, their experience in owning and operating networks, and the extent of their rural coverage (if any).

Towards a more perfect union
Once FirstNet has nominated its partner its focus will shift to integrating it into the project, which, Parkinson says, is “going to be complicated”. He adds that FirstNet is hoping to release the draft state plans and give states the opportunity to comment on them by early 2017, and aims to deliver the final state plans in the summer. The governors of each state will then have a choice to either accept the FirstNet plan or run their own procurement and select their own vendor before ultimately connecting with the FirstNet Core and integrating with the FirstNet network.

Parkinson says that FirstNet is encouraging states to opt in and lists speed of deployment and a stronger negotiating position with suppliers due to scale.

“We want states to opt in, we think it’s of benefit to them, but if a state opts out we’ll work with them every step of the way to make sure that they make a success,” he says.

He explains that through the opt-in route as soon as a governor signs on the dotted line FirstNet can immediately begin issuing cost orders, adding that in that scenario if a state opts in in summer 2017 deployment might begin in the autumn or winter of that year (or possibly sooner). “We’re hoping to get users on the network by 2018. Again it really depends on how quickly we can bring on the partner, how quickly we can move through state opt in, and then if states do opt out how quickly they can move through that process...”

However, if a state opts out it will have six months to run its own procurement. It will then have to get sign-off from the FCC on the interoperability of its opt-out plan. If it doesn’t get sign off then it will revert back to the FirstNet plan, but if it does then it will be passed to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and a spectrum lease agreement will have to be negotiated with FirstNet.

“There’s no timeline that’s laid out in law for either the FCC or the NTIA window, so there could be significant delays, which we conservatively believe could be two years,” says Parkinson.

“Every state does have the right to opt out, and we’ll work with those that choose to opt out, we’ll do everything we can,” Parkinson adds. “Remember we have the mandate to deploy a nationwide system. We can’t have islands of non- service or non-coverage. We have to make sure that we’re doing everything we possibly can to work with them... We’ve stressed that the states don’t have to do everything, we’re trying to supply them information as they possibly need or want, so they make the best educated decision for their state.”


Fire departments are pressing for FirstNet to provide good in-building coverage; credit: FirstNet

Field testing
In addition to the consultations and the development of the RFP, there has been a quite a lot of work to get a feel for how FirstNet would operate. There are five early builder projects and Parkinson highlights two in particular. The first is in Harris County, Texas and has a spectrum lease agreement with FirstNet.

“They’ve done a phenomenal job in deploying Band 14 devices... They’ve been able to get local public safety users on that system through test scenarios and demonstrate how data is now becoming a mission-critical resource,” Parkinson says. “The feedback from public safety has really been extraordinary. They’ve seen it work and that it has tremendous capabilities, and as a result they are the ones who have been spreading the word. That’s been a tremendously useful example.”

The second one is the state of New Jersey, which has been able to use its deployable early builder system for large-scale events such as the papal visit last year, which included a huge event in Philadelphia that straddled New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

“They were able to take the system and leverage it for all of the public safety users for the Pope’s event and it was a tremendous success. They’ve done an after-action report and they’ve really been able to illustrate the need for public safety services to have access to this type of system.”

Parkinson adds that there are a couple of vendors who have developed Band 14 devices, and notes that the early builder projects are test beds at this point. “What we have seen and what folks have been able to provide is things like talk groups, situational awareness tools and applications. It’s really assisted them in improving communications and situational awareness between the various jurisdictions and the various public safety apparatus. Be it fire, law enforcement, emergency medical services, they’ve really been able to mesh in seamlessly.”

What about in-building coverage? Parkinson says that there’s been a lot of pressure on this front, particularly from fire departments. “[With the] first deployments we can anticipate a certain type of in-building coverage and we expect that to improve with time, as we’re able to generate additional revenue, expand, update and improve both the capacity and coverage of the network. We have left that up to the various bids, we’ll leave that to our partner, but public safety organisations are going to be holding our feet to the fire... If the fire departments don’t use the network and our system as a result of poor in-building coverage that’s a pressure point we can place on our partner through the various financial penalties we’ve built into the procurement.”

Speaking of the partner and potential penalties, FirstNet’s private partner could pay more than $100 million in financial penalties and risk losing control of certain business functions if at least 70 per cent of the targeted public safety users do not subscribe to the FirstNet system in a given year, once it is up and running.

Whether FirstNet’s partner can successfully monetise the 20 MHz of spectrum while providing public safety with the service it requires is perhaps the biggest question of them all. This is made more acute by the extent to which it hinges on the availability of Band 14 devices for consumers and the partner’s need to recoup its investment from building out the network (which given the sheer size of the US and the extent of hardening required could cost in the tens of billions). It will also be expected to pay FirstNet at least $5.625 billion in regular payments over the 25-year lifetime of the project (though it will receive up to $6.5 billion in funding from FirstNet). Only time will tell...