LMR History Lessons, Reminders and Questions for FirstNet
By Brad Stoddard
Monday, March 27, 2017 | Comments
As the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) board prepares to take its next steps in creating a nationwide data network for public safety, board members are opening the door to endless ideas and solutions that will promote public-safety communications. Embracing lessons learned from peers with decades of LMR expertise should continue to be at the top of FirstNet’s list of lessons learned.

That’s not to suggest that FirstNet’s leaders should focus only on the mission-critical voice and variants making their way into the carrier marketplace; rather, I’m referring to the hurdles they may face in adoption. These obstacles are no different than those faced by the first responders who adopted LMR as far back as almost a century ago. The FirstNet team will continue to face challenges throughout the network’s infancy and into its mid-adoption years.

In my two decades in the LMR and first-responder application space, I have worked with organizations that had consistent concerns about procuring and sustaining technology. A major concern for these groups, however, was the ability to trust the partner. They needed to feel confident that the new technology they adopted would be better than existing technology. They also needed to trust the government entity providing the new solution. I have seen these same concerns in the adoption of LMR and public-safety applications, with the “want” to be a partner, influenced by the “need” to trust the other partner. Concerns about trust expressed 15 to 20 years ago still come up in meetings with prospective partners. Concerns of partnering also exist between levels of government, including government at the national level.

Where available and when affordable, public-safety agencies have traded brick-and-mortar resources for private and public data solutions. But we are facing a tidal wave of need. For the past decade, public safety’s increased demand for technology has run parallel with the consumer market. At the same time, grant funding has virtually disappeared, yet limited resources exist to bolster FirstNet’s early success.

The Public Safety Interoperable Communications (PSIC) grant program, initiated in 2007, infused nearly $1 billion into the states, supporting interoperable communications programs and improving communications resources used by first responders during disasters. The PSIC grants enabled many agencies around the nation to migrate to Project 25 (P25) standardized solutions and facilitated the adoption and maturity of statewide and regional LMR systems. Some statewide systems added hundreds of new agencies. Tens of thousands of new radios were migrated to a single-solution LMR service provider.

As it moves forward, FirstNet will focus on the value and align priorities to gain the subscribers needed to sustain the leveraged-carrier nationwide network without the shot in the arm of substantial grant funds for the end users to use for adoption. I strongly believe that rural broadband partnering is a strong development model and has the ability to sustain the network in underserved regions where carriers want subsidies to fund expansion. FirstNet can help solve that problem, as long as the priorities of the rural areas are moved to the forefront of construction.

Fortunately, in today’s world of the connected cloud of technologies, fewer agencies prefer to develop stand-alone or one-off solutions and are looking at existing solutions that can save money up front and be economically sustainable.

FirstNet’s commitment to providing the best technology for first responders has never wavered from contracting with a partner to create a nationwide public-safety grade network. These high standards ensure that resources are available 24/7 and can meet rigorous demands. The focal point has been around the network with the value of not requiring public-safety-grade devices, yet for a first responder, will that create issues of dependency or increased cost in the long run?

At some point, FirstNet plans to provide its own applications as well. On the surface, that appears to be a sound offering. But will that capability be based on creating a standard framework for vendors to leverage in developing their own applications or will it create competition between the private sector and their government counterparts?

How will FirstNet’s application plans be integrated into the end-to-end AT&T solution — assuming AT&T wins the contract award — that spans the public-safety answering point (PSAP) to the first responder? Is it possible that the FirstNet-partnered solutions will disrupt the PSAP space if AT&T does not provide services to all PSAPs? These are questions that will not be answered by the time the contract is awarded, but they are necessary questions needed to provide the checks and balances or oversight to FirstNet.

In the early days of 700 MHz D block support, I worked with some outstanding Public Safety Alliance (PSA) personnel on Capitol Hill. At a 7 a.m. meeting, Rob LeGrande, Chuck Dowd and I worked to educate House committee leaders on the nationwide public-safety broadband initiative. These leaders would soon take a vote on the initiative.

Although we offered the same vision that many from the PSA provided previously, we took an alternative approach and compared the proposed nationwide data network to the Eisenhower system of interstate and defense highways. The briefing, only one of many that they heard from public safety about the importance of the wireless spectrum, allowed the members seated to better understand the importance of this effort from a residual citizen benefit. The comparisons between the highway infrastructure and the interstates’ role in the nation’s defense resonate once again as we see infrastructure around our nation needing significant investment.

Is it possible to predict future change orders in the FirstNet contract that may create a growing subsidized system that public safety and the federal government is unable to sustain? FirstNet must balance the decision to do what is best for the nation’s public safety with an upcoming decision on a contract award while ensuring that the country’s taxpayer responsibilities are met as well.

Can this decision be similar to the creation of U.S. railroads, which provided great promise yet needed substantial help from the federal government and cost considerably more than projected? Parallels can be drawn between providing infrastructure such as roads, bridges and railroads with that of our new infrastructure of wireless networks. Both are necessary to modern society, yet they consume significant financial resources that require a long-term government subsidy or initial infusion of cash.

FirstNet officials said they expect no issues and request continued support from the new administration once a contract is awarded. We can only hope that the contract decision takes advantage of lessons learned from other significant federal partnerships in our history. Its leaders must recognize that less funding for technology is available at the local, state and federal levels. Federal entities that oversee FirstNet’s independent authority have done their due diligence. That effort should ensure that resources exist to adequately sustain the partnership and provide funding solutions to allow adoption at a faster pace.

Wireless broadband service is here to stay. Public safety should receive priority on any network, putting citizen safety and protection at the forefront of day-to-day and emergency operations. There may be multiple paths for the same destination but should the focus be aligned from the top down or the bottom up?

Brad Stoddard is Michigan's statewide interoperability coordinator (SWIC) and the director of Michigan’s Public Safety Communications System (MPSCS), one of the largest public-safety communications systems in the world. 2017 marks the 21th year of the MPSCS, a growing statewide 800/700 MHz Project 25 (P25) Phase 1 network.

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