Dedicated public safety network faces significant challenges

By: William Jackson
July 21, 2017

William Jackson
William Jackson

Work is expected to begin later this year on a nationwide dedicated public safety network to support the nation’s 14.6 million police, fire and rescue, ambulance and other first responders. Bandwidth has been set aside and money appropriated for the undertaking, and a multi-billion dollar 25-year contract for building and operating the network was awarded to AT&T in March. But stakeholders say that the old issues of coverage, reliability and security are still concerns for the ambitious project.

According to a study by the Government Accountability Office most stakeholders are satisfied with efforts made to date, but “much uncertainty remains about how the network will be implemented.”


The FirstNet program

The inability of first responders to communicate across organizational and jurisdictional boundaries has long been a problem. Currently, public safety organizations use robust and reliable land mobile radio systems for voice communications, but these are not interoperable and departments often cannot communicate with each other. And these systems do not support data. Organizations can use commercial data services, but these do not meet public safety requirements for reliability.

The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) was created by 2012’s Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act to address this problem. “By establishing a single, dedicated network for public safety use, FirstNet’s network is expected to foster greater interoperability and meet public safety officials’ reliability and other needs,” GAO said.

The act provided $7 billion for the project. The network will support high-speed, wireless data and voice telecommunications using Long Term Evolution (LTE) service standards, operating in the upper 700 MHz band. A nationwide core network will connect to 56 radio access networks (RAN) in each state, territory, and the District of Columbia.

FirstNet named AT&T as its network contractor in March 2017 and will pay out $6.5 billion to the company over five years to build network. FirstNet has established a lab to test devices and applications on the network for interoperability. Each state and territory will have its own RAN that will connect to the core network. States can either build and operate their own RAN, or opt to have AT&T handle this for them. The goal is to have 20 percent coverage by the network in the first year, and 100 percent coverage by five years.

AT&T is expected to invest about $40 billion in the network. Use by public safety personnel is voluntary, so the company will have to market the service and create competitive service packages. Excess capacity will be sold to consumers, although public safety subscribers will have priority on the network and their traffic would preempt consumer traffic when necessary.

The Challenges

But FirstNet and AT&T still must address basic networking challenges if the new network is to solve current limitations in public safety communications, GAO concluded. Challenges include:
• Coverage. This is a perennial problem in networking. Covering densely populated areas with high use is relatively simple and cost effective. But rural areas are expensive to reach, and communications inside buildings and in underground facilities can be difficult. Some statewide agencies worry that if they sign up for FirstNet, they will still have to maintain backup services in remote areas.
• User priority. Identifying public safety users and giving them priority over consumers will require a robust management framework. Giving the right people the right priorities at the right time will not be simple.
• Resiliency and security. The network must not only be able to withstand earthquakes, hurricanes and other severe conditions, but must also be protected from digital attacks. One local government official told GAO that “having a large concentration of sensitive public-safety information traveling through one network may be viewed as a target for cybersecurity attacks.”
• Integrating RANs. Networks operated by states rather than AT&T might not be interoperable or kept up to date.

GAO recommendations focused on FirstNet’s need to better communicate with tribal governments that will be using the network and on contract management. But even if the network gets up and running on schedule, it will not be a big improvement over current solutions if it does not address basic technical concerns.