FirstNet preps for new network with test lab

FirstNet preps for new network with test lab

The First Responder Network Authority continues its march toward delivering a nationwide broadband network to public safety workers with the FirstNet Innovation and Test Lab.

Opened Nov. 9 in FirstNet’s Boulder, Colo.,  technical headquarters, the lab is intended to be a “plug and play” environment in which the authority and its future industry partners will test apps, devices and features before deploying them to the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network. The lab will perform technology validation and automated testing in addition to providing a space for collaboration, knowledge sharing and training opportunities.

“When first responders are racing to help in disasters and emergencies, they need communications tools that are tested and proven to work,” said FirstNet CTO Jeff Bratcher in an email. “That’s why we created the FirstNet Innovation and Test Lab -- to ensure first responders have the innovative, effective, reliable technology they need to protect and serve our communities.”

The FirstNet Board approved the long-term lease of the 28,000-square-foot space in the Boulder facility, which includes offices, a warehouse and the lab. Built according to Telecommunications Industry Association standards, the lab will enable future partners to drop in their equipment so that FirstNet can start validation and acceptance testing quickly, Bratcher said.

The lab has 15 test benches, each of which is equipped to perform independent testing of the network, services, devices and apps. Additionally, it has a radio frequency switch matrix and programmable attenuators so engineers can remotely set up and execute tests. The lab also provides battery backup and a generator to allow for continuity of testing.

The walls are painted with an RF-absorbing paint, removing about 90 percent of radio-frequency interference from outside the lab, FirstNet  Labs Director Michael Van Zuiden said in a video introducing the lab. FirstNet also installed a Faraday cage, which is an RF isolation room that lets users drive radio signals down near the thermal noise floor.

“We will test mission-critical functions or services such as quality of service, priority and pre-emption,” Bratcher said. “These services are key differentiators of the network and will ensure the delivery of mission-critical, public-safety-grade features for first responders.”

Beyond the lab environment, FirstNet has three antennas that allow for testing over the air in a real-world environment, he added.

“This will be a place for public safety -- for our first responders -- to come in and look at available products and solutions, test and try, and to be able to give direct feedback to us and to developers,” FirstNet Senior Applications Engineer Shawn Shahidi said in the video. “You can use that feedback, that information, to improve and enhance existing products and also use those requirements to work on developing new technologies, new solutions that don’t exist today.”

In the future, the lab might also be used to model and troubleshoot problems that come up in the field.

Borne of communication problems after the 2001 terrorist attacks and created formally by law in 2012, the authority has faced considerable criticism in recent years, particularly for its price tag -- which ranges from $12 billion to $47 billion -- and lack of progress.

In the past, Bratcher has pointed to the historic scope of the project as a reason for its pace and praised the progress made so far, including establishing a Chief Customer Office and a Network Program Office in June.   

FirstNet has conducted some testing of devices over commercial networks already, and research has occurred in the field through FirstNet’s five Early Builder projects nationwide, each of which focuses on different aspects of first responder use. The lab aims to speed development along.

“The opening of the FirstNet Innovation and Test Lab is a major milestone for FirstNet and another step in the organization’s evolution from a startup and planning organization into a more operationally oriented entity,” Bratcher said.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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