I attended the first “public” meeting of the FirstNet board of directors yesterday on the US Department of Commerce’s campus (NTIA, NIST, NOAA, others) in Boulder, CO. The board provided an overview of FirstNet goals. The board meting was followed by a press conference. Attendees were then treated to a tour of the PSCR labs where potential FirstNet platforms were being tested.
The board of directors proclaimed that the vision was for local control and use of FirstNet assets/operations by law enforcement and public service entities. State governments are directed to “create the table” for participation by public safety entities in their respective states.
On a technical note, the FirstNet network will cover “every square meter in the United States” with an in-building presence in every major building using some 30,000 cell sites. There are some 1,300 technical requirements for the launch of FirstNet and 5,000 for long term operations of the network.
There are 5 guiding principles for the FirstNet network:
1. Reliability of the public safety network is job #1.
2. The network will cover “every square meter in the United States”.
3. The network will meet or exceed public safety technical requirements.
4. The network must be as economical to build and operate as possible. Even the poorest fire district, for example, must be able to afford the construction and operation of the network.
5. The network must be available as soon as possible using existing assets where possible.
The board meeting was followed by a press conference where it appeared to me that all members of the press allowed into the board meeting conference room were from the public safety industry press (no Denver Post, Boulder Daily Camera, etc). One question revealed that FirstNet would release a business plan for the technical part of the network in April 2013.
Following the press conference, attendees were invited to a tour of the Public Safety Communications Research labs which consisted of 700 MHz LTE gear: a) base stations and b) subscriber devices. PSCR personnel emphasized (quite rightly) that the presence of vendor gear in the labs represented no endorsement or indication of endorsement from PSCR. Having worked in vendor sales in the past, I can assure you a) it's a tough job to get your demo gear into any one’s lab and b) that is no guarantee of a purchase order. Subscriber devices (smartphones, tablets, in-car devices) on display included Harris and elektrobit (www.elektrobit.com). Base stations, small cell vendors included Harris, Alcatel-Lucent, Motorola Mobility, NEC, Public Wireless and IPWireless (General Dynamics).
There was no tour of the lab for core platforms (routers, switches).
While I support FirstNet’s goal of a nation wide interoperable, state-of-the-art network, I am skeptical of its ability to cover “every square meter in the United States” (I gather no board member has visited the Flat Tops Wilderness Area recently) plus in-building presence in every major building any time in the next decade. Where do the 30,000 cell sites come from? Are those 30,000 cell sites new construction or use of existing infrastructure? A new 4G cell site costs at least $500,000 times 30,000 equals $15 billion. How do you fund $15 billion from a $7 billion projected budget (most of it to come from a spectrum auction for which no date has been set)?
Why do I use quotation marks around “public”? The board meeting was held in a conference room and the “public” was invited to view proceedings remotely in a near-by auditorium. When I think of the word “public”, I think town hall or better yet, trade shows where even the highest and mightiest CEOs on panel discussions have to smile and swap business cards with the hoi poloi. There were less than 100 members of the “public” in attendance and appeared to consist of members of the vendor community. I spotted no uniforms from Colorado’s public safety community (Colorado Patrol, county sheriffs, any police or fire department.
There was no mention of what, if any, data was being used for network planning. The State Broadband Initiative funded through some $250 million of ARRA grants to states did not collect middle mile data. Is NTIA planning on building a FirstNet-only middle mile to support the 60 Mbps downloads to handsets the lab mentioned? How will the bandwidth get to “every square meter in the United States”?
Here in Colorado, we have a less than satisfactory experience with NTIA’s infrastructure efforts:
I hope FirstNet doesn’t do to public safety what EagleNet has done to public education in Colorado. I urge all sheriffs, chiefs of police and fire, county commissioners and state legislators to be “eyes, ears, nose and fingers in” on any FirstNet planning process. Failure to do may result in waste of public money and your community may have nothing to show for billions of FirstNet dollars.