Frequently Asked Questions
Who is FirstNet?
The First Responder Network Authority, or FirstNet, was created in 2012 as an independent authority under the Department of Commerce and National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). It is responsible for the deployment and operation of the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN). The NPSBN will provide fully interoperable data communications for first responders nationwide using a single frequency. To learn more, please go to http://firstnet.gov.
Public Safety petitioned for the D-Block and 20MHz of spectrum, but now we hear that part of that spectrum may be shared. Why?
Congress allocated $7 billion in initial funding for FirstNet to begin building the network. Lawmakers and FirstNet recognize that this is not enough money to build and maintain a robust nationwide network, so FirstNet is considering other options to supplement funding of the Public Safety Broadband Network. One possible model includes allowing for third-party sharing of the spectrum. While FirstNet has said that they are considering many options, no definitive plan has been decided upon. Public safety organizations nationwide are watching this issue closely to ensure that public safety has the bandwidth needed in order to operate without contention.
This network is for "public safety" but who will determine exactly which agencies and responders qualify to use the network?
This is indeed an important question. FirstNet is asking for direction from the Public Safety Advisory Council (PSAC) which is in the process of making a recommendation on this critical issue. Once the PSAC has made a recommendation, additional comments will be taken by FirstNet but no firm timetable exists for a final decision.
Will public safety broadband replace LMR for mission critical voice?
Land mobile radio (also known as LMR or two-way radio) will be a vital public safety communications tool for many years to come — perhaps for the next decade in some areas and much longer in others. Once FirstNet has significant coverage in place and standards and practices are established for Voice over LTE (VoLTE) that are similar to those which exist for P25 voice on LMR, the industry will likely see the increased transition of mission critical voice to the FirstNet network.
Who will manage prioritization and preemption?
Prioritization and preemption are key benefits of the coming nationwide public safety network. However, the policies and interfaces necessary to implement these features are far from decided. The PSAC and other key public safety technology groups will work with FirstNet to consider all options and develop the final plan for implementation.
How will FirstNet keep up with technology?
The technology is tied to the “3GPP” specification used by cellular carriers today. This specification is refreshed every year to add features, address compatibility issues, and maintain current technology. Additionally, the self-sustaining funding model called for in the legislation must include maintenance and upgrade costs to keep the network viable, including future generation network standards such as 5G and beyond.
Cost & Funding
What is the estimated cost for the network per month for access fees and hardware?
FirstNet’s stated goal is to offer monthly access pricing that is comparable to carrier cellular data prices. Hardware pricing will vary depending on capability, manufacturer and other factors. In general, LTE devices will be less expensive than LMR devices but higher than current cell phone devices, since PS LTE devices will be hardened and tested for public safety use. Additionally, the public safety market is significantly smaller than the consumer market, creating separate and unique economies of scale.
We have heard that FirstNet will be self-funding. What does that really mean?
Once again, it is useful to think of FirstNet as a new cellular carrier, much like the ones that currently exist. Cellular companies are “self-sustaining” because they bear the investment costs of their networks and then charge monthly access fees to their respective subscribers. Ultimately, they must maintain enough customers to break even, cover maintenance/upgrades and service any investment debt. Similarly, the funds seeded by Congress will cover FirstNet’s initial operating costs, but it must provide network services that appeal to the target market — public safety — and build and maintain the user-base through attractive, long-term value propositions.
Do you think that there will be enough money for this to be implemented in our lifetime?
Any network of this scale will take several years to be fully implemented, and will require careful use of funding. Few carriers — if any — have had the advantages that FirstNet has, however; namely, $7B in seed money and 20 MHz of spectrum which they did not have to purchase. Additionally, public safety is funding broadband use today as they buy services from carriers. A better product, competitively priced, should theoretically be able to win that market share. FirstNet’s challenge is real, but they also have tremendous resources. Perhaps most importantly, carrier networks are no longer reliable for public safety due to congestion, so it is important that we begin this process regardless of how long it may take.
Will rural areas be covered?
FirstNet is required to provide ‘substantial’ coverage in rural areas. Texas is 85% rural and state leaders recognize that rural coverage is an important topic that cannot be overlooked. To that end, Texas has formed a Rural Strategic Advisory Group (SAG) to identify challenges and requirements for rural coverage. The group’s comments on a host of rural considerations for FirstNet can be found under the Texas Public filings section of our website.
How will coverage be accomplished in the more rural or remote areas of the state? It just doesn’t seem feasible to construct a tower and install a system which might have very limited use.
FirstNet is looking at several ways to implement the network in remote areas. One is to use some type of satellite coverage; another is to implement deployable assets that can be brought in as needed for an incident. Another concept being considered is some method of sharing excess spectrum capacity with other carriers which would lower the cost of deployment.
Who will make Band Class 14 devices? Will I have options to choose from? How will these devices be tested and validated as public safety grade?
At least four manufacturers are currently building BC 14 devices and others have signaled their intentions of entering the market. Jurisdictions and individuals will be able to choose the device(s) that best meet their needs. At the State and Federal levels, plans are being developed to identify the most effective method to test and validate these devices for compatibility, as well as to ensure that the devices, their applications and connected devices meet the standards established by LTE User groups and others.
How will public safety product developers be engaged in the process?
Manufacturers worldwide are watching the development of FirstNet and NPSBN initiatives, and many have expressed their intent to offer devices, software and infrastructure components compatible with Band Class 14 spectrum. In fact, a recent market analysis by SMS Research forecasts a 60% growth rate in the next six years, serving nearly 4 Million public safety LTE subscribers worldwide. While no manufacturer will be forced to participate, it is clear that many will seek to capture public safety market share in the new PS LTE arena. Although the interest of manufacturers is obvious, the timing of their entry into the market is much less clear, and will be based both on FirstNet technical decisions and the manufacturers’ evaluation of market strength.
What is the expected life span of the end user equipment?
The user devices will have lifetimes similar to existing smart phones and mobile routers, typically 2 – 5 years.
This seems like Big Brother! Is the federal government coming in to take over our local and state communications?
Public Safety broadband initiatives have developed over many years and have not been driven by federal mandate or political partisanship. In fact, local public safety leaders — both directly and through various associations — have petitioned diligently for spectrum and funding for a dedicated public safety network. Ultimately, each jurisdiction will weigh the pros and cons of participating in FirstNet and will make decisions which they feel best meet the needs of their public safety organizations.
If we subscribe to this network, can we roam onto carrier networks from a single device?
While specifics are not currently available, one of FirstNet’s primary goals is for users to be able to move seamlessly between FirstNet and carriers throughout the nation. Additionally, some manufacturers offer band class 14 devices that include another carrier band class chip set within the same device, allowing the device to work on either network.
Has a network like this been deployed anywhere? Do we know that the technology works?
Yes. 4G cellular networks across the US use the identical 3GPP standard. The primary difference is the band class and frequency which is assigned to FirstNet. Both the United Kingdom and South Korea are also currently working on similar public safety broadband networks using 4G/LTE as their foundation.
Do I have to switch to FirstNet when it is available? If my city has invested in wifi mesh, how does this compare?
One way to envision FirstNet and how it will relate to existing infrastructure is to think of FirstNet as a new nationwide cellular carrier. When a new carrier enters a marketplace, it must invest in new infrastructure and develop new partnerships in order to provide services. The new carrier brings new options but consumers will make the decision to utilize the service based on perceived value. Similarly with FirstNet, there is no impact on existing systems — only more broadband options.
How will this compare to Verizon, AT&T or other carriers?
Once the public safety network has been built out and matured, the intent is for the service to be comparable to the major carriers, but with one major exception: during an incident or crisis, only public safety users will have access to the public safety spectrum, resulting in better communication capabilities for first responders and other public safety officials.
With all the problems with LMR, how will this network achieve nationwide interoperability?
FirstNet will achieve nationwide network interoperability for two primary reasons: first, the network is based upon the well established 3GPP standard, the very same standard that today allows you to roam from one cellular network to another seamlessly. Second, the legislation specifically excludes proprietary problems that have plagued LMR in general, and P25 implementations specifically. While the FirstNet NETWORK will be interoperable from the beginning, work will still need to be done to ensure that applications used by agencies on the network are also interoperable.
Will this network be subject to the same capacity/performance issues as carrier networks during large gatherings such as sporting events?
The public safety network will have about 10% of the number of users on the system as a commercial system, so congestion issues will be significantly diminished. Additionally, Incident Command will be able to regulate bandwidth allowed to specific users. Initial estimates indicate that all public safety users would be able to communicate, in some way, across the BC 14 network during a crisis.
Is this network proprietary technology?
The legislation specifically prohibits proprietary technology. Manufacturers will conform to the 3GPP standard. The primary use of the network, however, will be limited to public safety users.
Why was 3G selected as the standard when 4G is commonplace?
The standard is called “3GPP” for 3rd Generation Partnership Project. When 3G became available, this partnership was established between many cellular equipment vendors and major carriers. The partnership was so successful, they grew the organization but kept the 3GPP name, even though they moved on to 4G technology. As 5G emerges in years to come, it will also be governed by the “3GPP” organization and specifications.
How will our data be protected if it goes through a federal core?
Remember, today public safety data traverses carrier networks and public safety organizations implement security features of various kinds to protect the data. These same security steps can be taken on FirstNet. Additionally, FirstNet plans to implement additional security features and, although the security plan has not been fully developed, significant access-control and security features will guard user data, allowing access only to those authorized by the owner of that information. FirstNet will likely use a combination of robust security techniques and mechanisms typically found in high-security systems today. Bottom line: data will be at least as secure as today – and likely much more so!
Will we be able to control how our data is shared and with what users in a mutual aid scenario?
Absolutely. Data ownership and other information attributes, will allow the owner to specify who will be able to see, modify or otherwise use the data.
Why are we being encouraged to get involved so early? FirstNet has not determined a design, pricing or a technical architecture. Is Texas jumping the gun?
FirstNet has already released the network RFP (1/5/16…add link) so, although it will likely be two to three years before deployment starts, the process is well underway in terms of policy, capability and design. Texas has been involved in this process since the beginning at the state level, but it is imperative the local requirements be fully documented so that the eventual FirstNet Texas Plan can be evaluated with proper insight.
Additionally, the active, early involvement of Texas stakeholders as an Early Builder assures that our needs and ideas are well-represented within the plan. With a licensed and operational network already in place in Harris County, the State of Texas is well-prepared to help define the nationwide network.
Finally, Texas jurisdictions deserve the opportunity to offer input into the process today, rather than learn what has been decided on their behalf later.
When will the network be available? When do you expect this to be implemented?
FirstNet cannot provide an answer to this question until they have a network partner with an approved deployment strategy under contract. It is anticipated that mid 2017 is the earliest that such a partner/strategy will be in place. Once such a partner is in place, however, FirstNet will provide each State with a proposed network build-out plan and State-specific funding allocation, as determined by NTIA. The FirstNet enabling legislation did call for the network to be operational with self-sustaining funding by 2022.
If this process will take so long to implement, how do we know how many devices we will need by the time it’s in place?
As with any long-term planning effort, exact equipment requirements are only a best estimate. We recommend that you consider such things as the future growth of your agency and your community. Any estimate provided today is not a firm commitment to purchase equipment, but will instead serve as a planning tool for FirstNet’s use in the design and capacity of the network infrastructure.
Do you really think this will happen in our career?
FirstNet has indicated that they hope to have a network partner under contract and will begin to present State Plans by late 2017 or early 2018. It is anticipated that build out will begin quickly for a state when a governor approves the plan although clearly the whole US cannot be built at once. If a network partner has existing infrastructure which they can leverage, build out may go fairly quickly.
Will this provide a network within our career? A better question might be, “How can we NOT provide the best planning that we can for ourselves and future generations of public safety responders?’ It is our job and solemn obligation to do so.