The First Responder Network Authority, or FirstNet, was established by congress in February 2012 as an independent authority under the Department of Commerce and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). FirstNet is responsible for the deployment, operation and maintenance of the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN). Using priority access to LTE spectrum, the NPSBN provides interoperable data, voice and text communications for first responders throughout the U.S. and its territories.

FirstNet is governed by a board comprised of 15 members who have experience in the areas of public safety, information technology, communications and finance. The Board’s permanent members include the Secretary of Homeland Security, the United States Attorney General, and the Director of the Office of Management and Budget. The remaining members are selected by the Secretary of Commerce, with each serving 3-year staggered terms.

FirstNet also receives guidance, information and subject matter expertise from its Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC). Comprised of members representing all disciplines of public safety, including federal, state, territorial, tribal and local governments, the committee assists FirstNet in a wide range of areas, including policies, procedures, technologies and operational methods.

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How is FirstNet funded?

Congress initially allocated $7B to FirstNet for organizational development, network planning and initial deployment. FirstNet and AT&T are responsible for funding the public safety broadband network infrastructure – not local jurisdictions. State, local and tribal jurisdictions that choose to participate will be responsible for the purchase of devices and for monthly subscription/access fees.


What is Public Safety Broadband?

Public Safety Broadband is similar to the data service purchased by the public through a commercial cellular carrier, except that it is dedicated for use primarily by public safety professionals. In situations where commercial cellular networks become congested, such as major incidents or large events, it is often difficult or impossible to send pictures, texts and emails, or to access applications. Unfortunately, these are the types of situations in which public safety professionals have the greatest need to send or receive data. For first responders, the inability to access critical data, including criminal justice information or computer-aided dispatch, is not just an inconvenience; it’s a matter of safety for them and the communities they serve.

To better serve public safety’s data needs, Congress allocated 20 MHz of spectrum in the 700 MHz range dedicated to public safety’s mobile data needs. This 20 MHz, commonly referred to as Band 14, forms the basis of the NPSBN. The technology selected for the NPSBN is 4G/Long-Term Evolution (LTE).


What is LTE?

LTE is the same broadband technology that powers most smart phones, and there are numerous advantages to using this standards-based technology, including:

  • Intrinsic interoperability – LTE is a global standard that allows users to communicate regardless of the device manufacturer or the network provider
  • Greater choice of devices – LTE is global market with a large source of manufacturers and developers
  • Lower cost of devices –  A larger pool of suppliers means lowers costs for public safety
  • Multi-band capability – LTE works in many different bands, which means that public safety may have access to commercial carrier bands for added resilience
  • Forward & backward compatibility – 4G/LTE was built to be compatible with its predecessor, 3G, and it will be compatible with future 5G technology

Many public safety professionals can attest to the high cost of building and maintaining land-mobile radio (LMR) systems, as well as the high costs and technical challenges associated with achieving interoperability across different systems. By selecting a single standard for broadband deployment, public safety will be able to avoid many of the technological and financial obstacles to achieving and maintaining interoperable data communications.


Early Builders

While FirstNet was forming its staff and developing a Request for Proposal for commercial partners, five “early builders” in the U.S. received approval to develop trial networks using Band-14. In return for having early access to Band-14, each builder was tasked with addressing a set of Key Learning Conditions (KLCs). The overall objective of these KLCs was to collect critical information and data, and to document the “lessons learned” that helped lay the groundwork for the successful build-out of the network nationwide.

The early builder projects included:

  • Texas: Harris County LTE
  • State of New Jersey
  • State of New Mexico
  • Adams County, Colorado
  • Los Angeles Regional Interoperability Communications System (LA-RICS)

The KLCs for the Texas/Harris County early builder program included:

  • Core Transition – Documenting issues associated with transitioning from the current Harris County LTE core to the FirstNet core
  • Data Analysis – Defining the “public safety user” and the impact on the Public Safety Broadband Network
  • Special Events – Identifying LTE capabilities and requirements for Special Event Assessment Rating (SEAR) level events and National Special Security Events
  • Extended Mode – Exploring LTE capabilities beyond a nominal 15 km range
  • Training – Identifying how enhanced LTE capabilities affect and improve first responder training


NPSBN Status

In January of 2016, FirstNet issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) for the deployment of the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network. The RFP was described as “objective-based,” and the selection process adhered to all federal procurement requirements.

In March of 2017, Department of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced that AT&T had been selected as FirstNet’s partner to build, operate and maintain the first high-speed, nationwide wireless broadband network dedicated to public safety. AT&T will invest about $40 billion over the life of the 25-year contract to operate and maintain the network.

On September 19, 2017, Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced that Texas was opting-in to the network deployment plan offered by FirstNet. Every state, five U.S. territories, and the District of Columbia have elected to opt-in to the FirstNet plan.

Eligible public safety agencies can contact their local FirstNet representative to learn more.