Harris County Tackles Business Model for Public Safety LTE Sustainability
Thursday, November 12, 2015 | Comments
Harris County, Texas, has worked out a business model for financial sustainability of its public safety Long Term Evolution (LTE) network. In its first phase, the agency needs 7,500 subscribers paying $35 a month for unlimited data within three years of offering paid user fees, said Shing Lin, director of public-safety technology services for Harris County.

A few obstacles stand in the early builder network’s way to achieving that goal, however. The first is the high price of the devices that users need to operate on the network. The second is the nascent market for voice over LTE (VoLTE), which is likely to be required before public-safety users will give up their commercial LTE service for the private network.

“We must be able to eliminate the commercial carrier cost,” Lin said. “And the monthly cost must be at or what public safety pays for commercial service.”

Under a statewide contract, most Texas agencies currently pay $38 per month for unlimited data on commercial networks.

Buildout of the Harris County public safety LTE network, called Broadband Interoperable Gateway Network (BIGNet) is on track, with the county recently turning on five new sites for a total of 18 operational sites. The county plans to have another 18 sites on the air by February.

The project has 93 approved sites. In addition to the 18 sites in the Houston service area, there is one site in Brazos County and one mobile unit. The 37 sites will provide mobile coverage for the network, and portable coverage will follow with paid users. The 7,500 users at $35 a month would support the network wtih mobile coverage. "As we build out to the 90-plus sites, the needed users would have to grow accordingly to support increased costs of having more sites," Lin said.

Lin hopes to bring on paying users by September 2016 and be self sufficient three years after that. “We’re doing a lot of business planning,” he said.

Brazos County (Texas) Sheriff’s Office recently added band 14 modems to its fleet of 60 vehicles with county funding. The Brazos users comprise half of the 120 active but nonpaying users currently on the network. Texas A&M University is in College Station, Texas, a city within Brazos County, and the Harris County LTE core is located in College Station.

The agency in October had a standoff with a suspect and used the modems to stream video back to the command center during the incident, Lin said.

In addition, Houston Metropolitan Transit Authority buses have 700 MHz band 14 modems that were purchased with grant money. Harris County also expects the transportation agency to be an early paying customer on the network. The metro buses are used for evacuations during hurricane warnings.

Lin said it’s imperative for his agency to work with local agencies in Harris County to ensure they have money to buy the devices needed to use the network. “At $1,500 a pop for devices, we need to get in front of the budget process,” he said.

“The challenges we are seeing will be the same challenges that FirstNet will see,” said Todd Early, Texas Department of Public Safety (TxDPS) assistant deputy director and the Texas single point of contact (SPOC). “How do users pay for devices? The industry has to get creative on how they get devices to public safety.”

Lin said 80 percent of his time is spent on legal issues, forming partnerships and governance issues, and only 20 percent on technical work.

Harris County recently hired an account manager to “sell” the service to public-safety agencies. “The government hasn’t ever had to figure out how to run a business before,” Lin said.

“It’s a business,” Early said. “They need subscribers, and they have to update and maintain that network.”

Sandra Wendelken is editor of MissionCritical Communications and RadioResource International magazines. Contact her at swendelken@RRMediaGroup.com.

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