Fireman using a radio to communicate

Can FirstNet create a truly nationwide public safety network?

The congressionally mandated First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) has been given the daunting task of creating a first-of-its-kind network of unprecedented scope and reliability for the nation’s first responders.

Project at a glance

Organization: First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet)

Spectrum: 700 MHz band

Wireless technology: 4G LTE (Long-term evolution)

Agencies to be served: 60,000 federal, state, local and tribal

Target coverage area: All of the United States and territories

Budget: $7 billion

“This is the largest telecom project in our history,” FirstNet chairman Samuel Ginn told a House panel. The goal is nothing less than complete coverage of every square meter of the United States and its territories — both indoors and out — in a dedicated multicarrier network with a level of reliability and security not available from commercial services. “This is going to be a massive, challenging and complex undertaking,” Ginn said.

FirstNet  is in the early days of its organization and only the broadest details of the technical architecture for the network have been decided. “We are going to implement an LTE system,” Ginn told the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Communications and Technology. It will provide broadband communications to support voice, video and data, be interoperable between agencies and across jurisdictional lines and operate in the 700 MHz band set aside by the Federal Communications Commission for the effort.

According to FirstNet board member Susan Swenson, a retired telecommunications industry executive, the design of the network is a work in progress. “The details of that are being worked out,” she said.

The current vision for the network is a nationwide backbone based on open, non-proprietary standards and commercially available equipment. It will complement, not replace, existing land mobile radio, cellular and IP services being used by agencies. States will be given the opportunity to opt out of the program, and participating states will build out their own systems and interconnections with the backbone, possibly with federal help.

Although plans call for relying on commercially available technology and commercial carriers, the national public safety network will not share or piggyback on commercial services.

Because of its mission-critical nature, “You have to have a system built to higher standards than commercial cellular networks,” said Raymond Lehr, Maryland’s interoperability director. It also must be dedicated to public safety use so that officers are not competing with the public for bandwidth.

Many law enforcement and other first responder agencies now use commercial cellular and IP data services, and they are useful in supplementing traditional land mobile radios that most departments rely on. But during emergencies commercial infrastructures are vulnerable to damage, and first responders have to compete with the general public for limited bandwidth and air time.

Despite the challenges of building out such an ambitious network, the technical hurdles could be dwarfed by political, organizational and financial challenges.

The new network will have to meet the needs of more than 60,000 federal, state, local and tribal agencies and do it for no more cost to the end users than what agencies are paying now for commercial services. The national network also will have to accommodate emerging state and regional public safety networks that are being built out to provide intercommunications for state and local agencies. And few people believe that a network on this scale can be built for the $7 billion FirstNet has been authorized to spend — if the money ever becomes available.

Some, but not all, state public safety networking programs have been halted. Virginia is building out COMLINC — the Commonwealth’s Link to Interoperable Communications — to link radio systems from multiple agencies using voice over IP. The state’s Interoperable Communications Coordinator, Christopher I. McIntosh, recently told the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee that the system is one of the nation’s largest public safety VOIP networks. By the end of 2013, he expects it will have points of presence in 122 local jurisdictions as well as with the State Police, Transportation Department and Emergency Management Department.

“Soon, any laptop, tablet or smart phone in the hands of a public safety professional will become a radio capable of communication with any public safety answering point in the state, or any responder on a radio connected to it,” McIntosh said.

Across the Potomac, Maryland has completed the first phase of its $48 million First Responders Interoperable Radio System Team (Maryland FIRST), a 700 MHz voice system being built on the Project 25 standard for interoperable digital radio. It eventually will serve the state law enforcement agencies—including the State Police and Transportation Authority Police—as well as local agencies that opt to join.

“It will be a big step forward” when it is complete, said interoperability director Lehr. The current state police system is 20 years old and its radios work only within the county where a trooper is assigned. If a trooper moves out of the county or needs to work with local police, he often has to borrow a radio from local police. Communicating with other agencies requires patching through the local dispatcher. “It’s something that has to be replaced,” Lehr said.

A statewide, interoperable footprint will be a big step toward meeting State Police needs, and its value will be enhanced as other agencies adopt it. The first phase, completed in December, includes the Transportation Authority Police, one State Police barrack in Cecil County in the northeast corner of the state, and Kent County on the state’s Eastern Shore. Phase 2, which focuses on the Eastern Shore, where some local radio systems are reaching their end of life, is under way now. Phase 3 will focus on Central Maryland if funding is available.

The contractor for Maryland FIRST is Motorola Solutions, but because it is based on an open standard the system should work with any vendor’s P25 radios. The state has conducted interoperability tests with a system built for St. Mary’s County by Harris Corp., and the two work together.

Maryland FIRST will be able to use an existing network of 174 radio towers built across the state in the last decade as the core of the new system. The towers act as repeaters for mobile and handheld radios and are linked by microwave and fiber optic cable for backhaul. Maryland has been installing a lot of cable, and an effort is being made to provide redundant links to each tower, Lehr said. “Because it’s a public safety system we try to have two routes to each tower. To my way of thinking, that’s the most secure way.”

The Maryland project is offering only voice at this time, and Lehr says it will be complementary with the FirstNet effort. Despite the usefulness of sharing video and data, voice communication still is the overriding need for police and other first responders because it offers the one-to-many links needed for keeping everyone informed in an emergency.

“That technology for that doesn’t exist on the cellular side,” which many agencies used for data communications, “but it does exist on the radio side,” Lehr said.

This will change as the technology evolves, he said. “Eventually there will be a single hand-held device” that will enable first responders to communicate with each other using voice, video and data over a dedicated network with the reliability and functionality they need. “That has to be a broadband network.”

FirstNet’s job is to provide the backbone for that network. The convergence of functionality into a single device is five years or more in the future, Lehr said. While that capability is developing, FirstNet will be building out its network with a technology that still is evolving.

“LTE is a new technology, and we still have to understand who has what capabilities,” Swenson said. But she does not see the task of engineering the new network with a moving target as daunting.

As a COO at a number of companies during her career, including T-Mobile USA, Swenson said she has been involved with the design and build-out of a number of wireless networks and says that keeping up with an evolving technology is not a big problem.

“I’m less concerned about the technology challenge,” she said. “There’s always a solution. Our challenge right now is engaging with all of the organizations on an individual basis and figuring out how to make it all work together.”

About the Author

William Jackson is freelance writer and the author of the CyberEye blog.

Reader Comments

Thu, Apr 25, 2013 steve georgia

Most systems are all ready budget busters - and this is another unfunded mandate - as FirstNet will spend all the federal funding on administering the network that will be underutilized because of the cost of airtime use

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