Colorado gets a leg up on FirstNet deployment

As one of the Early Builders for FirstNet's nationwide broadband public safety network, Colorado officials expect their experience testing the demonstration network's capabilities will help as applications and devices come online.

The lessons learned from the applications, devices and operational sides and "can help our state move forward quickly and take advantage of the technology shift and really try to get ahead of the curve,” said Brian Shepherd, broadband program manager at the state’s Office of Information Technology.

But other lessons won’t apply since the First Responder Network Authority, an independent agency within the Commerce Department, tapped AT&T last March to build the network. “Some of those lessons we learned in terms of building a network won’t really be applicable anymore because we’re not going to build a new network,” Shepherd said. “We’re just going to use AT&T’s network.”

As one of five Early Builders nationwide, Colorado launched an LTE network in 2014 and tested it during several events, such as the 2015 International Ski Federation’s Alpine World Ski Championship in Vail, when participants used push to talk (PTT), viewed enhanced video surveillance from five cameras on Band Class 14, and set up hunter safety checkpoints with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. For that, participants used wireless, ruggedized handheld devices on the same network to scan radio frequency identification tags and query and enter information into databases in real time.

“Our focus is now on the implementation and working with agencies across the state to say, ‘Let’s use those lessons that we learned from those tests and work towards implementation,’” Shepherd said. “How can we help agencies implement this technology better? What do they need to do? What do we need to set up to be able to communicate across different agencies, whether that’s local to state to federal, or whether that’s transportation to public health to law enforcement?”

Before opting in to FirstNet, the state issued a request for proposals asking vendors to show what a public safety network would look like. But any network the state built would take time to complete. AT&T had the advantage of being able to offer services right away. “There’s really no risk at all or financial commitment, but we lose a lot of local control, even state control," Shepherd said. "The only contract that exists is between FirstNet and AT&T, and that contract is not public, so we have no idea what’s in that contract.”

Had it opted out, the state would have been able to tailor the network to its specific needs and use the infrastructure for other critical communications, but at a great financial risk, he said. “When it came down to it, I think that’s really what the tradeoff was,” Shepherd added.

AT&T has started building the FirstNet platform using its existing LTE infrastructure as the foundation. The plan is for the company to put Band 14 spectrum on tens of thousands of new and existing towers nationwide in the next five years. AT&T will build a dedicated evolved packet core network with end-to-end encryption through which all FirstNet traffic will be routed.

This year, FirstNet subscribers should expect increased coverage and capacity, round-the-clock access to a Security Operations Center, and PTT bring-your-own-device tools.

“The early builders played an important role in influencing the design of FirstNet,” Chris Sambar, senior vice president for AT&T FirstNet said in an email. “We learned a lot from their experiences, and we look forward to integrating their best practices and network assets into the FirstNet solution we are bringing forward.” 

Colorado was 40th state or territory to opt into FirstNet when Gov. John Hickenlooper made the announcement Dec. 18, 2017. All 56 states and U.S. territories have opted in, but they may still have choices. Last August, Verizon announced its plan to build a dedicated public-safety LTE network as an alternative to FirstNet.

“If AT&T delivers on all of their promises, I think it will be a good thing,” Shepherd said. “I like the fact that we have some competition as well … because competition is always good. I hope both of them take it seriously and understand what the implications are of that network, and if both of them do that, I think it will be a good step forward.”

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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