In 2012, the National Telecommunications and Information Agency (NTIA) was tasked with creating a private communications network for public safety personnel. The network needs to offer nationwide cellular data for emergency services and enhance interoperability among jurisdictions.
That network is now known as First Responders Authority Network (FirstNet) and five years later, it's closing in on becoming a reality.
"FirstNet's mission is to deploy the nation's first public safety broadband network, dedicated only to public safety," Andy Faust, coordinator and analyst for Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, said. "They're going to use LT cellular technology to pull this off. They're going to provide high speed data rates and they're going to leverage existing commercial and public safety infrastructure where it makes sense."
FirstNet is currently working through the process to choose a provider with an existing infrastructure. At least three companies have announced bid submissions for the roughly $7 billion contract and two have been eliminated. The only known remaining provider left is AT&T, though Verizon or additional providers could be in the running with silent bids.
"Who they choose has got to be a pretty big player because this is nation wide," Faust said. "They've got to have the horsepower to do it. That's part of the law, they have to be able to provide coverage nationwide."
After the provider has been chosen, states will have the option of joining FirstNet.
In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker has created the Wisconsin Interoperability Council (IC) to devise a strategic plan to increase interoperability between local jurisdictions. The council has been working with the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN), a subcommittee of FirstNet, to stay up-to-date throughout the planning process and prepare to implement FirstNet.
Once the provider is chosen and they have rolled out the network, each emergency service entity in the state will have the option of joining. For taxpayers, the common question on the matter will be, "who pays for this?"
The short answer is: the taxpayers.
Just as counties pay for voice and data services through AT&T, Verizon or other providers, FirstNet is the same concept. The network will offer cellular data to those who choose to pay for it, which will result in an additional monthly utility bill.
"And they [local emergency service entities] have the choice not to use FirstNet," Faust said. "They have the decision. If the price point isn't good for them or they don't think coverage is better, they don't have to go to it."
What's so special about FirstNet then?
The answer is priority. FirstNet will be hosted on a bandwidth which gives priority to emergency service personnel. Currently everyday cellphones use LTE bands 12, 13 and 17. FirstNet will use band 14 and as the band is introduced to the general population in the future, emergency responders will always have priority over use of the bandwidth.
This means if Vilas County joins FirstNet and a resident in Arbor Vitae with a band 14-ready cellphone makes a call at the same time as a first responder, the first responder's call will be connected immediately and the resident in Arbor Vitae will be bumped to a different bandwidth, taking a few seconds longer.
By placing at least the majority of first responder on one network such as FirstNet, communications between multiple jurisdictions becomes stronger and more reliable. If a major disaster occurs in Illinois, emergency services from the Northwoods can assist with the situation and all communications will take place on band 14, saving valuable time.
For more information on FirstNet, visit www.firstnet.gov or for more information on the Wisconsin IC, visit www.interop.wi.gov.
Jessica Leighty may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.