July 25, 2014, 7:14 PM — The organizers of the FirstNet LTE public safety network have the frequencies and standards they need to build the system, and they know where the money's coming from. They know how to get there from here, but it won't be a quick trip.
FirstNet will realize a vision that emerged in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, using technology that didn't exist until years later. It will be a single network linking all federal, state and local public-safety agencies in the U.S., based on the same radio spectrum and technology throughout. Though it won't replace every public-safety radio system in use today, FirstNet will help to eliminate the crazy quilt of incompatible radio systems and frequencies that makes it hard for different teams to coordinate their efforts.
That's no small matter when the news is bad enough to send first responders from multiple cities, counties or states converging on one area. For example, the many firefighting forces that battle summer blazes around the West often can't communicate directly with each other because they use different types of radios and different frequency bands, said TJ Kennedy, acting general manager of the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), which is in charge of making the network a reality.
The systems that first responders use now, including more than 10,000 separate LMRS (land mobile radio system) networks, also fall short of many users' needs. Some public-safety employees have to use their own smartphones in order to use apps, send photos and make calls in the field, according to Kennedy. Once FirstNet's built, all agencies will be able to sign up for the same national service, built on modern mobile broadband technology. It will span not just the 50 states but also U.S. territories, such as Puerto Rico, Guam and the Virgin Islands, and is intended to cover as much land as possible. In some cases that will probably require satellite, but most wireless will go over land-based LTE.
As with any effort to coordinate across 50 states and six territories, spanning about 60,000 public safety agencies, the network won't happen overnight. In fact, FirstNet isn't committing to any precise timeline or budget for getting it done. To give an idea how long the effort might take, there's a 46-step process that has to be carried out for each state and territory. The group is making progress: In many states, it's on step 7, Kennedy said.
That long process is designed to make sure the FirstNet system serves the needs of each state. FirstNet is meeting with local agencies and others involved with the issue, educating them about the technology and finding out what they want out of it.
"The geography and the needs of public safety in Maryland are probably very different from the needs in Alaska," Kennedy said.