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Public Works' Status as First Responder is Unclear

Public Works Magazine...May 2012

     The new First Responders Network Authority (FirstNet) being set up within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration--it won't be up and running for years--may offer access to public works departments. But that access is far from guaranteed.
      Very little has been settled with regard to how FirstNet will operate. A 15-person board will run the system, three of them top federal officials (Secretary of Homeland Security, Attorney General and Director of the Office of Management and Budget) and the remainder appointed by the Secretary of Commerce. The Board is suppose to start functioning in August. Even after the FirstNet Board is appointed, it will take a year or so for it to work out the rules on who will have access to the 20 megaherz in the D-Block band spectrum which Congress set aside for this new national, interoperable public safety broadband network.
      The Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 that Congress passed in February mandates that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) auction off the unused spectrum in the 700 MHz D Block band and use $7 billion of the money raised to fund construction of the FirstNet infrastructure, which will consist of new and existing cell towers, and maybe some fiber and microwave connections.  Those auction dollars will not be forthcoming immediately. That is why the Middle Class legislation included a provision allowing FirstNet to borrow $2 billion from the U.S. Treasury for immediate, start-up needs. The bill also cleared $115 million for state planning grants.
       Here is why Congress created FirstNet. Police departments rely principally on two-way voice radios to communicate. This technology is extremely limited. It cannot exchange electronic data or video. Moreover, disparate spectrum and aging technologies prevent first responders (which under most local scenarios include fire and emergency medical services, but not public works) from attaining truly nationwide seamless interoperable communications. Broadband on 700 MHz band spectrum will allow seamless interoperability on all levels, local, state, and federal.
     Harlin McEwen, Chairman of the Communications & Technology Committee at the International Association of Chiefs of Police, had considerable input into the fashioning of the FirstNet legislation. He says the question of whether public works departments will have access to FirstNet spectrum is unanswerable this early in the game. "But I believe that is the correct approach and a good idea, that is broader participation beyond first responders to critical infrastructure, transportation, utility and public works departments," he states.
    He adds, "Police, fire and emergency medical services will manage the resource. They must have access to the necessary bandwidth. But if you manage it right, all of these other agencies which are often involved in supporting those kinds of incidents, it only makes sense that they somehow be included in the plan. But it is too early to know."
     Part of the reason it is too early to know is that the FirstNet legislation allows states to opt-out of participating in the deployment of the national network and to instead submit a state proposal for deployment, which would have to meet federal architecture and technical standards nevertheless. This "opt-out" provision probably was inserted out of deference to the wishes of the National Governors Association. In a letter to members of Congress as the final version of the bill was jelling in January, the NGA said:  "Restricting a state’s ability to determine network subscribers could have a detrimental impact on the success of the network and its long-term sustainability."
     In terms of the infrastructure of the network, the legislation calls for a core network and a radio access network. The first consists of national and regional data centers and the like, which provide connectivity between the radio access network and the public Internet or public switched network, or both. The radio access network encompasses the cell site equipment, antennas and backhaul equipment. Asked whether city and county facilities or property could be used to build this infrastructure, requiring some involvement by public works departments, Ed McFadden, Executive Director, External Communications at Verizon, says what everyone else seems to be saying, "No one knows."