FirstNet: Public Safety’s Tipping Point
As FirstNet looks to set the framework to build out a nationwide network for first responders, and wireless broadband technology becomes increasingly pervasive, the use of wireless communication in public safety starts to mirror our own commercial experience. While many remain unyieldingly loyal to the mission-critical nature and proven track record of land mobile radio (LMR) systems, it may be unrealistic to limit public safety personnel in the use of the potential power of broadband technology. The question then is how can FirstNet proceed in a manner that works from both a business standpoint and for addressing the essential need to converge traditional mission-critical LMR and emerging LTE broadband technology?
FirstNet very likely will find itself competing for users (customers) with commercial service providers that today offer wireless broadband services to public safety organizations. To be successful, FirstNet will need to offer a service that is differentiated from commercial service providers, while at the same time developing relationships with them that enable, for example, roaming agreements, or the use of infrastructure resources.
A compelling way FirstNet can differentiate its service offering from that of commercial service providers is to sharply focus on the essential needs of first responders, which are fundamentally different from those of consumers and commercial enterprises. As consumers, we typically accept “best effort” services from our service providers. On the other hand, first responders require “must have” services when their job requires it most, those situations during which they are protecting themselves and the lives and property of the citizens they serve. We call that capability “Mission Critical.” So, the most important element of a success-driven business plan for FirstNet is to decide how to deliver mission critical service levels to public safety agencies so that they have a compelling reason to subscribe to their service.
The FirstNet board also has rightly identified outreach to State, Local, Federal and Tribal entities as a key component of its business plan. Interestingly, under the legislation, states can select to “opt-out” of portions of the FirstNet-managed network construction, and instead build themselves that piece of the national network that lies within their own borders. The opt-out provision obviously could have a significant impact as FirstNet continues to move toward a nationwide network. The first step of opt-out mitigation is an aggressive outreach initiative that will keep all parties engaged and heard in the process. Even more, it opens the door for a term we call “opt-in,” whereby State, Local and Tribal entities have an incentive to invest in the network in order to increase its economic and technical sustainability.
Finally, FirstNet has the challenging task of developing network architecture to enable its business model. Key will be for FirstNet to engage the private sector in this process, leveraging to the greatest degree possible the experience and resources that these private enterprises can bring to the table. An initial concept for this network architecture was introduced at the September 25 FirstNet Board meeting. Through a Notice of Inquiry process conducted by the NTIA, 133 respondents provided a broad range of input. Now, FirstNet and its agents can sift through these valuable contributions in order to develop the network architecture portion of its business plan.
At the end of the day there is an invisible yet precious asset at the middle of this debate – spectrum – and it has brought us to a defining moment in our nation’s history. We have a unique opportunity to provide first responders with an important capability to enhance the way they perform their most critical missions. All stake holders need to remain engaged and informed of the development of this vital national resource. Public policy makers and the general public must remain aligned on the importance of driving this initiative along a successful and forward looking path.