Cybersecurity and Deterrence

The State of FirstNet, America’s Public Safety Broadband Network

By Alicia Loh
Tuesday, April 16, 2019, 8:08 AM

On April 1, AT&T announced that the Navy and the Marine Corps had signed up to the FirstNet public safety broadband network, which prioritizes public safety communications over other types of traffic. A policy directive from the secretary of the Navy provides guidance on how the Navy and the Marine Corps should procure and deploy FirstNet devices and services. The government has been working on the creation of a nationwide, interoperable public safety broadband network for over a decade. Here is what FirstNet is, where its development stands, and why it matters.

The Creation of FirstNet

Calls for a nationwide public safety network gained widespread support after 9/11, which revealed holes in emergency communications infrastructure. First responders from different jurisdictions were unable to communicate with each other because of differences in equipment, and cell phone service was quickly overwhelmed from use by both emergency personnel and civilians. The 9/11 Commission Report recommended that Congress provide for “the expedited and increased assignment of radio spectrum for public safety purposes.”

Title IV of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 created the First Responder Network Authority, or FirstNet. FirstNet is an independent authority within the National Telecommunication and Information Administration, or NTIA, in charge of establishing “a nationwide, interoperable public safety broadband network.” The law allocated $7 billion and 20 MHz of valuable 700 MHz D-Block spectrum to the network. Additionally, the law required the Federal Communications Commission to form an advisory board to create technical standards that would allow for interoperability between the equipment used by all emergency services on the public safety broadband network.

The law requires FirstNet to consult with regional, state, local and tribal jurisdictions in building out the core network and radio access networks. The core network is the infrastructure that connects with cell towers and bases used to connect individual devices. Each state can choose to either allow FirstNet to build the radio access network or create their own, as long as the state-run network complies with FCC requirements.

FirstNet is led by a board of 15 members: the secretary of homeland security, the attorney general, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, and 12 people appointed by the secretary of commerce for their public safety, technical, network and financial expertise. The FirstNet board is responsible for “overall policy and direction of FirstNet” and has the power to create committees to aid in its mission.

Interoperability

Without a dedicated public safety network, first responders communicate using either land mobile radios (LMRs) or commercial cell networks. LMRs are wireless communications systems that are support voice and low-speed data communications. Commercial cell networks can provide high-speed data and access to applications but cannot deliver the high security standards that LMRs can for voice communications.

Emergency responders and the military have used LMRs for decades for “mission critical voice” communications because LMRs are the most reliable and secure systems in a variety of environments and scenarios. However, LMRs operate on thousands of different networks and are often not interoperable because they operate on different spectrum frequencies, they are encrypted in different ways, newer LMRs are not backwards compatible, and the systems are not standardized but rather customized by vendors or agencies.

The FirstNet network must solve the interoperability issue between agencies by operating on a uniform standard. However, the system also needs to maintain the reliable and secure voice capabilities of LMR while taking advantage of high-speed data capabilities present in commercial cell networks.

FirstNet Partnership with AT&T

Public safety officials initially hoped for a “dedicated public safety network” separate from any commercial provider. However, while Congress allocated $7 billion to build of the network, that would still not be enough funding for a completely separate network. The estimated cost of building a new nationwide fourth-generation (4G) wireless network for the FirstNet system ranged from $15 to 40 billion, in part because infrastructure like cell towers has to be built not only in dense urban areas but across all of rural America. Therefore, any buildout would require either public-public or public-private partnerships. In 2016, the FirstNet Board sent out a request asking bidders to provide their own solutions to 16 high-level goals.

In March 2017, FirstNet formed a public-private partnership with AT&T, awarding AT&T a 25-year contract to build out the network. Under this deal, FirstNet agreed to give AT&T access to the 20 MHz of spectrum allocated under the law and provide $6.5 billion over the first five years. In return, AT&T agreed to provide access to its existing infrastructure and will “spend about $40 billion over the life of the contract to build, deploy, operate and maintain the network.” Under the contract, AT&T will make annual payments that total $18 billion over the 25-year period. Around $2-3 billion will be used to fund FirstNet’s operational expenses, while the rest will be reinvested into the FirstNet system.

States Opting In & Out

The law gives states the option to opt out of the federal FirstNet network and create their own public safety network instead, as long as it meets FCC standards. However, some states complained that the burden would be too high for them to create their own network. While FirstNet has funding to spend on the federal buildout, FirstNet does not provide funds to any state building out its own network. Additionally, states that opt out are responsible for maintenance of the network and potentially face penalties for not meeting requirements of the FirstNet network.

AT&T worked with FirstNet to create plans to send to each state. In September 2017, AT&T officially sent the plans to each governor, triggering a 90-day deadline for each state to opt in or out. All 50 states, 5 territories and the District of Columbia opted in to the FirstNet network instead of creating their own. Some states have been operating on the FirstNet network for over a year now, while others are still in the process of negotiating contracts with FirstNet. However, even though all states have opted in, public agencies are not automatically subscribed and must pay for a subscription themselves. FirstNet now has 425,000 subscribers from more than 5,250 public safety agencies, up 70 percent from October 2018. Most of those subscribers were former AT&T customers as well.

The Application Ecosystem

A subscription to the FirstNet network also includes access to an application ecosystem of interoperable public-safety-focused applications. Such apps include 10-21 Video, a body camera app; PulsePoint, which crowdsources CPR-train individuals; and SceneDoc, an evidence collection and management tool. AT&T screens applications for security concerns before adding them to the closed ecosystem. FirstNet and AT&T have also sponsored hackathons to inspire the creation of more applications.

Buildout

By the end of 2018, AT&T completed 40 percent of the planned buildout for the FirstNet system, ahead of the March 2019 target date. AT&T plans on completing 60 percent of the planned buildout by the end of 2019. Part of the buildout includes a focus on expanding access in rural areas, where service is mandatory under the FirstNet contract. FirstNet is also concerned with being compatible with a future 5G network. The devices that AT&T is currently installing will only require a software upgrade to be compatible with future 5G technology, getting rid of the need for manpower to update technology manually. 

Competition

Because of the high costs for states to opt out, some advocates criticized FirstNet for stifling competition in the public safety communications market. With no states or territories opting out from the federal network, there is only a single network provider—AT&T. However, Verizon owned the majority of the public safety communications market share before FirstNet’s launch. In March 2018, Verizon decided to launch its own public safety core network to compete with FirstNet. Both networks offer priority and preemption for public safety communications but are still slightly different. FirstNet’s public safety core network is physically separate from AT&T’s commercial core network, which means that its traffic uses different hardware. In contrast, Verizon uses the same hardware for its commercial and public safety core networks, separating the traffic virtually. Each network argues that its own permutation provides more security.

Interoperability between the FirstNet network and other public safety networks like Verizon’s is a key debate. Because the networks prioritize public safety communications, without interoperability, each network runs the risk of failing to prioritize communications of public safety agencies that use the other network. Verizon maintains that interoperability is necessary for competition in this market. However, FirstNet is reluctant to provide core-to-core interoperability because it increases the risk of cybersecurity vulnerabilities. It also insists that the interoperability issue has already been evaluated and discussed before the law was passed and during the RFP process. FirstNet argues that Verizon chose not to participate in the RFP and merely hopes to maintain its customer base.

However, FirstNet is not opposed to working with other companies altogether. In January 2019 at the Consumer Electronics Show, the acting CEO of FirstNet, Ed Parkinson, stated that FirstNet was looking for more industry partners.

The FirstNet Network in Action

FirstNet allows public safety officials to communicate even when commercial networks are overwhelmed. This occurs whenever larger-than-average crowds gather for events like the Super Bowl in Atlanta, the annual Firelake Fireflight Balloon Festival hosted by the Citizen Potawatomi Tribe, or the Women’s March in 2017.

When natural disasters take down the infrastructure or cellular service is scarce, FirstNet can mobilize Satellite Cell on Light Trucks (“SatCOLTs”) and other equipment to provide additional communications support. For example, these trucks have been used in Washington County, Md. after severe thunderstorms, on the West Coast during the Miles fire, and in Florida after Hurricane Michael

FirstNet is also exploring new ways to improve emergency services in both rural and urban areas. After a new partnership, FirstNet will now support the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s telehealth network, helping rural Mississippians access telemedicine services in an emergency. In cities, FirstNet plans to eventually incorporate internet of things devices and smart city efforts into the network.

Conclusion

Overall, states and public safety agencies have responded favorably the rollout of FirstNet. The increasing enrollment numbers and timely build out bode well for FirstNet and AT&T. Moving forward, FirstNet will be judged by how well it can keep its promises to complete the build out and meet the needs of the emergency responders it serves.