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FirstNet roundtable reveals many details

Urgent Communications
By Glenn Bischoff
March 15, 2013


 FirstNet board members Charles Dowd (left) and Jeff Johnson (right) spoke during a roundtable discussion on March 14 at the International Wireless Communications Expo (IWCE) in Las Vegas. The session was moderated by Urgent Communications editor Donny Jackson (center).LAS VEGAS — Speaking during a roundtable discussion yesterday at the International Wireless Communications Expo (IWCE), FirstNet board members Charles Dowd and Jeff Johnson said that the organization expects to name a general manager in the next week to 10 days. Fellow board member Craig Farrill has been serving as acting general manager since December.

Dowd said that FirstNet received 30 applications. Dowd didn't share much about the vetting process, but he said that the applicants represented "a good depth of talent" — talent that would be helpful to FirstNet in staffing roles other than general manager.

"We don't want to tell the general manager who he wants to hire, but we certainly would want to see that general manager looking at some of these other folks, because there's a lot of ability there that we want to take advantage of," he said.

Although the FirstNet network is designed to meet the needs of first responders, the general manager won't necessarily come from the public-safety sector.

"Did you have to have a public-safety background [to be considered for the general-manager job]? No, you didn't," he said. "Obviously, that's an advantage. But obviously those who have built networks of this nature also have a unique position in this."

During the wide-ranging discussion — moderated by Urgent Communications editor Donny Jackson — Johnson stressed that the network would be public-safety grade.

"We're not going to build a system that is commercial-grade reliable," Johnson said. "We're going to build a public-safety grade, mission-critical system that is intended to operate through and beyond natural disasters and handle routine and ordinary peaks and valleys that public safety experiences."

But access to this public-safety network won't necessarily be restricted to first responders, according to Johnson.

"The law actually says 'public-safety network,'" said Johnson, who is CEO of the Western Fire Chiefs Association. "But this board is choosing to interpret that pretty broadly. When I respond to a hazardous materials call on the freeway, that involves the highway department, and there's lots of interaction. Getting those traffic-camera feeds directly to our apparatus helps us make all sorts of decisions. That's just a single example.

"Whether [the network] is broad enough to include utilities, transportation and public works, I think this board is seeing it as the broader public-safety community, and not just the people who spray and shoot and get shot at."

Dowd, the deputy chief of the New York City Police Department in charge of its massive communications system, agreed.

"The ability to set partnerships with utilities, and they become almost a first responder or a second responder in support of first responders, is going to be hugely helpful," Dowd said. "You want to ensure that they can get their job done and that you can communicate with them efficiently during [disasters].

"If you look at any hurricane scenario in an older city like New York, there are overhead wires everywhere. A huge piece of our puzzle is deciding whether those wires are dangerous. Police and fire need the support of utilities to address that. And then you have trees down everywhere. The department of parks has teams going out, and they have to be able to communicate with first responders in order to prioritize which of those tree-down jobs they have to get to first."

There are a couple of other practical reasons for allowing the critical-infrastructure sector to use this network on some level: it has a great many embedded assets that can be leveraged, which will help to drive down the cost of building the network, and it represents a much-needed source of revenue in the form of user fees.

Johnson acknowledged that the network has to be self-sustaining.

"We do not today anticipate going back to Congress, or to the states and localities — beyond the device-based, user-fee idea — and tell them the we need 'X' million [dollars]," he said. "That is not in anybody's thinking right now."

Regardless whether critical-infrastructure assets eventually are pulled into this network, Johnson said that it is "highly likely" that public-safety assets will be leveraged "no matter what model we choose."

"Not only does public safety have towers where it normally isn't commercially viable, but public safety, for public safety, is likely to give us no-rent or reduced-rent access to their towers, and that just lowers the cost of network operation."

Dowd added that it's only logical to do leverage public safety's assets for the broadband network.

"From the perspective of the city of New York, we have 300 sites within the NYPD radio system, and you have the NYCWIN broadband network in the city that has over 400 sites," he said. "That's 700 sites that you potentially could leverage. And then you look at the backhaul that's in place to support those sites, and can you leverage that? The answer is that you absolutely could. How much would that reduce the cost of the buildout of this network in a place like the city of New York?"

Both Dowd and Johnson stressed that no decisions have been regarding network design, and won't until the FirstNet board has a chance to meet with officials in all 56 U.S. states and territories, a process that is expected to be completed by the end of June. According to Johnson, such input will be vital.

"This is a listening tour to make sure that we understand the requirements of the states," he said. "The fact is … Oregon is very different than Nebraska. Oregon is bumpy and has a beach, and Nebraska isn't and doesn't. The needs, topology, everything is different. So, we have to go out there and listen — that's job one."

Dowd is eager to get going. "A year from now, if we can't sit here in front of you and say that we have the states excited about working with FirstNet and accomplishing this mission, we haven't done our job. That doesn't mean that we're going to make everybody happy. But the goal here is to make sure that the states and localities are comfortable that there's an ongoing dialog and that there's progress being made in terms of what they need to make this network work."

Johnson added that it is equally vital that the FirstNet board hears from the Public Safety Advisory Committee chaired by Harlin McEwen, which was created expressly for that purpose.

"We need from our PSAC that over-the-horizon view of what the human component is going to look like at the local government level," Johnson said. "We've asked them to look over that horizon and tell us the human level, the operational level, of what impacts the nationwide network is going to have. … A lot of what we're going to do is an engineering challenge, but I think the human challenge is going to be a far greater lift."

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