Colorado Sees Potential in Partnerships for FirstNet Rural Coverage
Wednesday, September 24, 2014 | Comments

Colorado’s First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) outreach efforts focus is on bringing interested stakeholders to the table to ensure FirstNet builds a network that Colorado agencies will want to use. Outreach efforts have been particularly well received in rural parts of the state, where broadband service is in need.

“The response has surprisingly been overwhelmingly positive, and the place it has been the most positive is the rural areas,” said Kim Coleman Madsen, FirstNet Colorado public-safety broadband manager within the Governor’s Office of Information Technology (OIT). “They’re incredibly positive and excited about the idea of FirstNet increasing their capabilities. They would really like to see FirstNet get some momentum because they have a great need.”

Before FirstNet was created, OIT had begun a broadband development plan to bring broadband services to underserved, typically rural, parts of Colorado. “We have already had a lot of conversations with rural power authorities about broadband, in terms of getting it out to communities, so we see a lot of potential to piggyback on those efforts that we’ve already started,” said Brian Shepherd, OIT broadband program manager.

Shepherd is also the point of contact for FirstNet in Colorado. Overseeing both broadband initiatives presents unique opportunities for his team. “We’ve found that in rural parts, there’s a handful of people that wear a lot of hats, so we think they can help put stuff together and really integrate the projects.”

Shepherd previously worked as the deputy director of the Adams County (Colorado) Communications Center (Adcom 9-1-1), which is one of the four Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) awardees. After reaching a spectrum leasing agreement with FirstNet, Adcom went live with a Long Term Evolution (LTE) network in the dedicated public-safety 700 MHz band 14 spectrum in June. (link to ).

Many rural utility co-ops have already been identified as key partners for Shepherd’s team. “We see the rural co-ops being a potential key resource for the FirstNet network.”

According to the 2010 U.S. Census of Population, about 98.5 percent of Colorado’s area is considered rural, with about 14 percent of the population living in those rural areas. Urban areas make up only 1.5 percent of the total area but account for about 86 percent of the population.

The state’s initial FirstNet outreach efforts focused on identifying, educating and involving public-safety communities. By the end of September, the team will have conducted 68 events and contacted almost 850 people since March. And the governing board represents 15 different entities. Stakeholders also identified key secondary user agencies that often aid in emergencies and should be included in the FirstNet discussion, said Coleman Madsen.

Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, an electric co-op that serves electric customers from the western slope to the eastern plains of Colorado, occassionally responds to local emergencies. “If there’s a fire or similar event, we dispatch crews and are on standby to shut off transmission lines and substations,” said Jonathan Hager, telecommunications manager, Tri-State. “We do respond to those events and cooperate with authorities. We have tried to assist with communications too, but it’s difficult to set up a communications system because everyone has different systems. It’s hard to get everyone together. I think the FirstNet project is going to take care of that.”

The Colorado FirstNet team also conducted a public-private partnership summit June 16 with attendees representing 18 different organizations, including big telecom carriers, cable providers, local rural telecom carriers, as well as power and water authorities.  

“In general, we fully believe that the secondary responders are going to be critical to this network because we know that when something happens, it’s an all-hands-on-deck situation, and we have to have everyone involved be able to communicate with each other,” said Shepherd.

“Brian Shepard has been very good about keeping folks informed, and he’s been very open to working with different stakeholders,” Hager said.

The Colorado FirstNet team is in the process of working on a request for proposal (RFP) to hire services to model the possible coverage in the state using existing and known assets, which is funded by the State and Local Implementation Grant Program (SLIGP), overseen by the governing body. The state wants to take advantage of a whole range of assets, including local public-safety assets and statewide LMR assets, Department of Transportation assets (which has a lot of fiber), private companies, utilities and railroads. The state will use existing asset data to begin this process. 

“If you drive down the rural highways and look for them, you’ll notice there are a lot of towers with microwave antennas,” said Hager. “Different entities use these towers and communications buildings to send operational data between remote stations and their operations center. We’re out in the middle of nowhere, and we have microwave systems that go from one corner of state to the other. So there’s a number of existing infrastructure sites out there.”

As FirstNet starts building the network, it could take advantage of some of this existing infrastructure, including Tri-State’s microwave and fiber assets, Hager said.

In return, Hager imagines FirstNet would either help pay Tri-State’s system costs or allow the co-op to use bandwidth on the system. The bandwidth needs of the utility would be a small percentage of the total provisioned by FirstNet and could be used for Tri-State's non-critical data. If the FirstNet system becomes overloaded and experiences delays, small delays, for example 30 seconds late on meter reading at a substation, wouldn’t be a big deal for Tri-State, he said. “We have different priorities on different kinds of traffic,” he said.

“I think the message to utilities should be  — get involved to the extent that they can provide assistance with the buildout of the infrastructure and the network,” Hager said. “It’s to their advantage, especially if they can acquire some bandwidth on the system."

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