LTE network for US public safety taking it one step at a time

The FirstNet system will help agencies work together, but it isn't going up tomorrow

The organizers of the FirstNet LTE public safety network have the frequencies and standards they need to build the system, and they know where the money's coming from. They know how to get there from here, but it won't be a quick trip.

FirstNet will realize a vision that emerged in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, using technology that didn't exist until years later. It will be a single network linking all federal, state and local public-safety agencies in the U.S., based on the same radio spectrum and technology throughout. Though it won't replace every public-safety radio system in use today, FirstNet will help to eliminate the crazy quilt of incompatible radio systems and frequencies that makes it hard for different teams to coordinate their efforts.

That's no small matter when the news is bad enough to send first responders from multiple cities, counties or states converging on one area. For example, the many firefighting forces that battle summer blazes around the West often can't communicate directly with each other because they use different types of radios and different frequency bands, said TJ Kennedy, acting general manager of the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), which is in charge of making the network a reality.

The systems that first responders use now, including more than 10,000 separate LMRS (land mobile radio system) networks, also fall short of many users' needs. Some public-safety employees have to use their own smartphones in order to use apps, send photos and make calls in the field, according to Kennedy. Once FirstNet's built, all agencies will be able to sign up for the same national service, built on modern mobile broadband technology. It will span not just the 50 states but also U.S. territories, such as Puerto Rico, Guam and the Virgin Islands, and is intended to cover as much land as possible. In some cases that will probably require satellite, but most wireless will go over land-based LTE.

As with any effort to coordinate across 50 states and six territories, spanning about 60,000 public safety agencies, the network won't happen overnight. In fact, FirstNet isn't committing to any precise timeline or budget for getting it done. To give an idea how long the effort might take, there's a 46-step process that has to be carried out for each state and territory. The group is making progress: In many states, it's on step 7, Kennedy said.

That long process is designed to make sure the FirstNet system serves the needs of each state. FirstNet is meeting with local agencies and others involved with the issue, educating them about the technology and finding out what they want out of it.

"The geography and the needs of public safety in Maryland are probably very different from the needs in Alaska," Kennedy said.

Ultimately, each state and territory will choose whether to build the local wireless portion of the network themselves or have FirstNet do it. They can't opt out of the system altogether. Once the wireless infrastructure is in place, individual police departments, fire departments and other agencies will sign up and pay for service on FirstNet in much the same way they now buy service from a commercial mobile operator. FirstNet expects the service to be competitively priced, Kennedy said.

The network itself will be built and operated by carriers or other bidders that respond to FirstNet RFPs (requests for proposals), which will lay out the requirements for the system. Those criteria are still being set.

There's better news on the funding and technology for FirstNet.

Though not all the money is there yet, the funding sources for the system are secure, Kennedy said. The law that authorizes the network says the money to build it will come from three national auctions of wireless spectrum, which are forecast to bring in about US$7 billion. One of those, the so-called H Block auction, has already generated about $1.5 billion. Still to come are the sale of a band called AWS-3 to mobile operators, coming in November, and later the so-called incentive auctions to convert TV frequencies to mobile broadband.

FirstNet is also likely to be an easy fit with other networks and devices. It's designed to run entirely on IP (Internet Protocol), with a fast wired backbone in the core and LTE wireless networks at the edge. Because all the major commercial carriers in the U.S. use LTE, any gear that goes into the network or into first responders' hands can be based on the same mass-produced technologies, keeping costs down.

Unlike current public-safety systems, FirstNet will also have enough bandwidth to carry voice, video and data on mobile devices. The network has been assigned a 20MHz chunk of spectrum in the 700MHz band, comparable to what the major commercial carriers are using in that band. Carriers like 700MHz for its long-reaching signals and ability to penetrate walls.

Some devices on the market already are equipped to use FirstNet's band, and more will follow, Kennedy said. Some other countries have adopted the same band for public safety, most importantly Canada, which shares a continent-wide border with the U.S. This could allow for interoperability between U.S. and Canadian systems if needed, he said.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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