NTIA makes $121.5 million available to states for FirstNet planning, questions about the network remain


The U.S. Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has announced the availability of $121.5 million in grants to assist states as they prepare for a nationwide public safety broadband network. The grants will be available to all states and territories, and will support planning, consultation, education and outreach activities as well as help fund efforts to collect information on infrastructure and equipment that could be used by the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) in building a wireless public safety broadband network. Even though this money is being made available, few working with FirstNet have any idea how to start the planning process as the authority has been silent, and is now closing a portion of its meeting this week in Boulder, raising even more questions about transparency.

The Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 created FirstNet and directed it to deploy a nationwide wireless broadband network to enable first responders to better communicate with each other during emergencies and save lives. The Act directed NTIA to establish the State and Local Implementation Grant Program (SLIGP), making grants available to states, in collaboration with regional, tribal, and local jurisdictions, as FirstNet takes steps to help make this nationwide, interoperable network a reality.

These bills and this money were a long time in coming – 8 years by the shortest estimates, decades if you start looking back at when discussions started over a network of this type. Overall, there’s $7 billion for FirstNet planned. However, states and the vendors themselves are hard pressed to say how any of this will come together.

So far, FirstNet has had over 133 notices of inquiry (NOI) from vendors trying to understand what they might be bidding for. Since the authority was established in August of last year, it has had only two meetings, and has yet to make any comments about the 133 NOIs. There are real questions to be answered about how the network will be constructed, if it will be public first, or commercial first, and what technology should be put in place. FirstNet was primarily framed as a broadband network, but that leaves out critical technology like the radios, and sensor networks relied on by law enforcement and national security. The focus on broadband may also mean the project has already been under-scoped and underfunded.

In addition to the NOIs, former officials are starting to comment about the lack of guidance around the network. “It’s kind of a mystery,” John Farmer, former general counsel for the 9/11 Commission, told Defense News. “No one knows how this is going to work.”

On January 14, FirstNet put a notice in the Federal Register that said it would be having another meeting in Boulder, Colorado on February 12. The original notice included a webcast and said the meeting would be public and open. The board amended that entry on January 25, to say that a portion of the meeting would now be closed, “as necessary to preserve the confidentiality of commercial or financial information that is privileged or confidential, to discuss personnel matters, or to discuss legal matters affecting the First Responder Network Authority, including pending or potential litigation.”

Shortly after those changes, one vendor, Textron Inc. which hopes to lead construction of the network, convened vendors in Washington DC, to try and figure out how this was all going to work. Companies like Harris Corp were there too, and shortly after accounts popped up in Bloomberg and Urgent Communications, with quotes from vendors in attendance voicing frustration over where to go or what to plan for.

States in limbo

The state money offered up by NTIA is designed as a formula-based, matching grant program. The federal share of the grant program represents 80% of the total project costs, while recipients will contribute at least 20%. Presumably, this February meeting was to have provided guidance on this new release as states only have until March 19, 2013 to get their applications in, and the requirements call for these planning grants to include significant consultation with the authority.

The grant opportunity itself notes that the NTIA will reserve half of the award amount to ensure that phase one planning which includes identifying stakeholders, technology requirements, establishing standards, and creating a timeline for deployment, are all firmly in place before phase two planning is allowed to move forward. Yet, without any clear guidance, states are going into this planning period and even the initial planning grant application, virtually blind. Given the change in the federal register, it no longer appears that much sunlight is forthcoming.

Special Temporary Authority

Some states already have a good portion of public safety network planning done, ready to implement, and are waiting on approval from FirstNet to get going. Seven localities were given funds under the Broadband Technologies Opportunity Program (BTOP), those projects were supposed to be deployed already, but the NTIA halted completion so that FirstNet could have input. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) offered a workaround to two of the seven cities – Harris County, Texas and Charlotte, North Carolina. Under its power, the FCC can grant what is called special temporary authority (STA), to run a critical network like this despite the NTIA injunction. Urgent Communications reports that Charlotte declined to operate under this temporary allowance from the FCC, over questions whether the STA really gave them a full runway or not.

Last week, Harris Corp. launched a technology pilot with city officials in New Orleans, Louisiana. The pilot solution offers real-time video streaming over LTE, and involves support from both Cisco and Nokia Siemens Networks – all vendors that were in attendance at the Textron meeting at the end of January. The pilot focuses on new 700 MHz Band 14 LTE capabilities. The six-month demonstration began on February 3, when first responders first experienced LTE and broadband applications over a dedicated network.

Typically, it can take hours or days after an event for first responders to see video from the field, limiting its usability. During the February 3rd test, participants in the City of New Orleans’ Emergency Operations Center accessed live, streaming video from individuals in the field using a Harris ruggedized tablet. The tablet, designed for operation on LTE networks, delivers mission-critical information in real-time. This is the type of gear and technology vendors are hoping to bid out for FirstNet. Harris also makes radios like the push-to-talk models already in use by police, fire, and national security.

The pilot program allows the city of New Orleans to test a series of mission-specific, public safety LTE devices and applications. What’s key about this pilot is that it, too, operates under a special temporary authority granted by the FCC, with consent from FirstNet. Throughout the six-month pilot, Harris, Cisco and Nokia Siemens Networks will work with the city of New Orleans to demonstrate additional public safety-centric applications and devices on the network system.

While the special temporary authority might give cities like New Orleans the opportunity to test run some of the technology that might end up in the field through FirstNet, this could end up being a six month pitch for no deal. As Charlotte officials noted when they declined their own STA, if officials at FirstNet or the NTIA don’t reauthorize, there comes a point when these networks or these pilots become noncompliant.