FirstNet Cost, Business Model Questions Pepper House Oversight Hearing (11/21/13)
Thursday, November 21, 2013 | Comments

By Sandra Wendelken
Questions of cost and a sustainable business model peppered a House subcommittee hearing on the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) Nov. 21.

The House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology heard from six witnesses during a hearing titled “Oversight of FirstNet and the Advancement of Public Safety Wireless Communications.”

Most of the legislators made positive comments about the work that FirstNet has done to date and the monumental task ahead. However, several congressmen and one witness brought up concerns about how public-safety agencies — already financially strapped — will pay for the network and whether FirstNet is doing enough to incorporate local and state needs.

“FirstNet outreach has significantly improved and is more consistent but there are still questions regarding requirements, user community (state, local government) roles and responsibilities, an overarching business case, defined business and operations models, and of course, near and long-term funding,” said Stu Davis, Ohio chief information officer (CIO). “We need to have further insight into key components so we can properly plan for the future.”

Specifically, Davis said he would like to see the FirstNet business model. He said the MARCS statewide public-safety voice network in Ohio gets significant push back from users for $20 a month user fees. “How will they pay for both?” Davis asked. “What are the chargeback and cost allocation implications from A-87 guidance?”

A-87 is a federal circular on cost principles for state, local and tribal governments.

FirstNet Chairman Sam Ginn assured legislators FirstNet understands what public safety needs. “This should be a joint effort. When we have completed the RFP (request for proposals) and presented it to the states, there will be no surprises in Ohio as to what will be in the document,” he said. “I understand if you don’t satisfy your customers, you don’t have a business.”

Ginn said that 70 percent of the cost of the network will be in cell-site locations. “It matters in total economics,” he said. “If we can get each state and federal government to use those without fees, it would dramatically reduce the cost of the network.”

Darryl Ackley, cabinet secretary of the New Mexico Department of Information Technology, outlined New Mexico’s work with FirstNet to establish a lease agreement for its Broadband Technology and Opportunities Program (BTOP) project. The state plans to release an RFP for its project in the first quarter of 2014. It addition, the state will use the Harris County, Texas, evolved packet core (EPC) to support the deployment.

Dennis Martinez, chief technology officer (CTO) for Harris RF Communications Division, said a lack of Long Term Evolution (LTE) standards for public-safety systems should not hinder the BTOP deployments. “That would not preclude future compliance,” he said. “It’s a factor that has to be considered, but it shouldn’t be a show stopper.”

Dereck Orr, program manager of the Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR), outlined the needs for public-safety standards in push to talk (PTT), direct mode and group calling. “There has been significant progress with standards in those areas,” Orr said. “Our expectation is that in the next 18 – 24 months we will see prototypes in our lab” with the public-safety features so the PSCR staff can test them.

David Turetsky, chair of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau (PSHSB), outlined the FCC’s work to adhere to the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Action of 2012 provisions and noted the importance of the next-generation 9-1-1 (NG 9-1-1) transition being tightly interwoven with the FirstNet network.

Rep. John Shimkus was the last congressman to weigh in with questions and comments, saying the federal government is unlikely to provide more funding than the currently allocated $7 billion. “Mr. Ginn, I hope you take heed of some of Mr. Davis’ concerns in his opening testimony,” Shimkus said. “We have to get this right. … You’ve got to get it built within budget.”

“I take the $7 billion as a personal and organizational challenge,” Ginn said.

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