Rural response: the need for an effective rural firstnet network.

AuthorKlein, Stephen
PositionFirst Responder Network Authority

TABLE OF CONTENTS I. INTRODUCTION 54 II. BACKGROUND 56 A. Statutory Background 56 B. Rural First Responders Face Unique Challenges 59 C. FirstNet's Prioritization of Urban Areas 61 D. Urban First Responders Have Inherent Advantages 63 III. ANALYSIS 64 A. FirstNet Needs to Ensure that National Providers Do Not Take Advantage of the RFP 65 B. The Final FirstNet Plan Needs to Include Local and Regional Service Providers 66 C. FirstNet Should Dictate that a Certain Amount of Initial Federal Funding Go to Rural Areas 69 D. The Network Needs to Be Able to Adapt with Advances in Technology 71 E. The Federal Government Needs to Accept That Rural Areas May Not Be Profitable 72 IV. CONCLUSION 73 I. INTRODUCTION

Imagine: an oil spill rapidly spreading in the wilderness, and a terrorist threat to a major urban area. Both are devastating in different ways. However, what groups these phenomena together is the need for swift and comprehensive responses from multiple first responder groups, allowing for a sustained, simultaneous response to multiple concurrent events. The flaw in not having an interoperable system, which allows for different agencies to effectively communicate during a response to a catastrophe, was demonstrated during the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In both cases, the lack of interoperable public-safety communications hampered rescue efforts and the overall effectiveness of public safety operations. (1) The need for a unified response from public safety officials prompted Congress to create the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), which will encourage greater interconnectivity between multiple first responder agencies in the event of an emergency. (2)

Responding to emergencies is a critical part of a first responder's job. (3) Communication systems are essential for public safety officials such as police, firefighters, and paramedics to gather and share information during emergencies. (4) In an attempt to provide first responders with adequate communications support, Congress established FirstNet with the passage of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012. (5) Specifically, the Act established FirstNet as an independent authority within the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), charged FirstNet with the establishment of a nationwide public-safety broadband network, and allocated billions of dollars for this public-safety broadband network's construction. (6) The Act directly provided resources, including both spectrum licenses and financial appropriations, for the establishment of a nationwide, interoperable wireless broadband network specifically for first responders. (7) The Act required the FCC to reallocate the "D Block," part of the 700 MHz band that had previously been allocated for commercial use, to FirstNet. (8) Specifically, FirstNet's license allows them to operate between 758-769 MHz and 788-799 MHz. (9) FirstNet was also granted a license to operate within the existing public safety broadband spectrum. (10) States may opt out and deploy their own networks should the FirstNet's nationwide broadband plan be unsatisfactory to them. (11)

FirstNet is required to charge fees that are sufficient to cover its operating expenses for each fiscal year. (12) Public safety users will be assessed these annual fees to use the public-safety broadband network, just as they would for commercial broadband networks. (13) With FirstNet's need to become self-funding, it is probable that the focus on existing coverage areas with higher potential subscriber fees will lead to rural areas being deprioritized or abandoned because there is little to no incentive to expend the resources necessary to create the infrastructure to cover those areas. FirstNet must ensure that a private partner does not deprioritize rural network expansion. It would be prudent for the federal government, such as Congress and NTIA, to evaluate the need to commit additional funds toward rural network expansion during the initial build-out phase, as well as the possibility of providing loans or subsidies to state and local governments to enable them to have the resources to acquire the equipment which is required to access the network. It is imperative that FirstNet maintain its fiscal independence in NTIA and that it remembers to follow through on its statutory duty to ensure that rural areas receive the same adequacy of coverage as their urban counterparts. Meeting this mandate will require increased cooperation with local authorities, and a realization that, while it may not be the most economically advantageous proposition, greater use of local rural network providers is necessary to ensure that rural first responders can effectively communicate and coordinate a response to rural disasters.

This Note explores ways in which FirstNet may practically approach the need for reliable infrastructure in rural areas. Section II will look at the current structure and trends in FirstNet. Section II will show why rural areas need a reliable system for their public safety officers and why it is problematic if FirstNet delays implementation of a network in rural areas. Section II will also address why FirstNet is prioritizing urban areas with their national networks and what steps may be taken to ensure that the statutory goal of a nationwide network for first responders is reached.

Section III will provide a plan to balance FirstNet's need to be self-funding with the reality that rural areas need coverage and do not have the subscriber base or additional financial resources necessary to encourage growth from a market perspective. Section III demonstrates the need for FirstNet to prioritize, or at the least not to deprioritize, rural network expansion and equipage during the early expansion phase to meet its statutory obligations. Section III also analyzes the competing factors that determine how monetary resources are spent and how they affect the policies of FirstNet. This assessment shows how FirstNet can better work with state and local governments to ensure that there is sufficient cooperation to provide rural access, and additional resources provided where available. Lastly, Section III will discuss how FirstNet should look at the costs associated with rural areas as a necessary public service that does not necessarily need to be profitable to be successful.


    1. Statutory Background

      The Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 (the Act) established numerous responsibilities for FirstNet, most of which relate directly to developing the nationwide public-safety broadband network. (14) First, FirstNet needs to "enter into agreements to use, to the maximum extent economically desirable, existing commercial, federal, state, local, and tribal infrastructure" to accomplish the overall goal of a national network. (15) Second, FirstNet must consult the appropriate local or federal authority to gain information about the best ways in which to implement the network. (16) Third, FirstNet must require that equipment for the public safety network be built using open, non-proprietary standards." (17) Fourth, FirstNet needs to be rolled out in deployment phases, each including separate rural coverage milestones. (18) FirstNet must issue Requests for Proposals (RFP) to build, operate, and maintain the network. (19) RFPs should include timetables for construction of the physical network and goals for network coverage areas and service levels. (20)

      To accomplish these tasks, FirstNet is allowed to establish agreements with entities involved in the construction, management, or operation of the public safety network that allow access to the public safety network on a secondary basis for services other than public safety. (21) This allows individual commercial customers to access the network when it is not needed for priority first responder uses. (22) FirstNet can also create the technical and operational requirements for the public safety network, as well as how it should be managed and operated. (23) In establishing the infrastructure for the public safety network, FirstNet is required to include the following network components: a core network of data centers and other elements based on commercial standards that will provide connectivity between "the radio access network (RAN) and the public Internet or the Public Switched Telephone Network, or both," and RAN "cell-site equipment, antennas, and backhaul equipment, based on commercial standards," to support wireless devices operating on frequencies designated for public safety broadband. (24)

      First responders across thousands of local departments "rely on thousands of separate, incompatible, and often proprietary land-mobile radio (LMR) systems for their mission-critical voice communications." (25) Often, these LMR systems lack interoperability, which prevents first responders from communicating with their counterparts in other agencies and jurisdictions who use differing systems. (26) FirstNet is "expected to support important data transmission (such as the vital signs of critically injured people and security-camera video feeds) and foster greater interoperability among public safety entities." (27) Devices connected to the FirstNet network will deliver interoperability between first responders, because "they will be using the same radio frequency band nationwide, and will be required to use the same commercially available standards." (28)

      To accomplish these goals, Congress determined that FirstNet should utilize public-private partnerships in establishing, maintaining, and operating the network. (29) The purpose of the partnership is to assist FirstNet in becoming self-funding after the initial expansion phase. (30) The FirstNet board decided that the best way to create the network necessary to meet their statutory duties is to accept only national...

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