The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet)--the independent agency charged with constructing a nationwide, seamless emergency communications network--continues to take steps toward that ultimate goal, its acting general manager told Congress recently.
It has established a permanent headquarters in Reston, Virginia, a test-and evaluation center in Boulder, Colorado, and is working its way through a series of consultations with the states, TJ Kennedy told the House Homeland Security Committee's subcommittee on emergency preparedness, response and communications.
Kennedy also revealed that FirstNet will allow commercial providers to use excess spectrum--when not needed for emergency communications--and to charge them fees for the privilege.
Priority switching will be built into the systems from the ground up, so the airwaves will always be open for first responders when needed. Wireless communications vendors can lease the unused spectrum from the authority, which will take the money and put it toward operating the network, Kennedy said.
Testing at the Boulder facility has already shown that this is feasible, he added.
"We're encouraged that we will have additional funding to help support the network going forward," Kennedy said.
Prior to Congress establishing the First Responder Network, commercial wireless providers wanted control of the D-block of spectrum, which became available after the demise of analog television. Industry lobbyists argued that the commercial providers were best suited to set up and operate the network, and that they would ensure that police, fire and other emergency response users had priority access when needed.
First responder organizations and the Department of Homeland Security vehemently opposed the idea, which was quashed when the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 established FirstNet and handed control of the D-Block over to the independent agency, which is under the Department of Commerce.
The vision is to have a network of interoperable radios that local, state federal and tribal first responders can use anywhere in 56 states and territories--from the urban canyons of New York City to the remote wilds of Alaska. Early drafts of how it would work would use existing cell phone towers and perhaps satellites to reach sparsely populated areas.
States have the right to opt out of the system and go their own way. FirstNet officials have said in the past that keeping the states and...