On Wednesday, the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) released a much anticipated request for proposals (RFP) for the nationwide public safety LTE network. The Indefinite Delivery/Indefinite Quantity contract with a limit of $100 billion for a performance period of 25 years marks what FirstNet’s Chief Executive Officer Mike Poth describes as a “first of its kind public-private partnership”. Proposals for the project are due by April 29th and many telecommunications carriers will likely enter the competition, which could prove profitable as any of the unused 20 MHz of 700MHz broadband spectrum will be left under the operator’s control. Moreover, the RFP highlights 16 key objectives requiring additional investments in a number of other auxiliary technologies to ensure network functionality.
Following the lead of other nations (United Kingdom and South Korea), the RFP is a crucial first step in the process of shepherding the American public safety system to modernity in an age of mobility and information. Over time, by increasing interoperable communications among first-responders and providing improved situational awareness with multimedia data, the network will inevitably revolutionize the way first-responders complete business processes and interact with one another and their communities. Moreover, FirstNet enables public safety workers to employ some of the very same technologies in the workplace that they are so comfortable with in their personal lives. In this way, the project is more than the development of infrastructure to support first-responder LTE use; with the RFP outlining the need to ensure user adoption, create a device and application ecosystem, and guarantee security among other objectives. For only with these tangential developments will the system work both technically and fundamentally to improve the effectiveness of first-responders and the lives of those they serve.
The success of the network ultimately depends on user-adoption, for a network without users, will be as effective as the current system albeit at a greater cost. To this end, devices operating on the network should meet industry work standards as well as ease-of-use expectations. In particular, the RFP states that mobile devices should be “capable of gloved, one-handed, or hands-free operation as well as…multimedia and high-definition data transmission both from humans and machine-based sensors”. Fortunately, several mobile device and public safety equipment manufacturers—Sonim, Kyocera, Motorola, etc.—have developed Band-14 devices that live up to these requirements. Capable of dealing with rough work-conditions characteristic of the public safety industry, these devices also boast many of the features prevalent on consumer devices, thus reducing the learning curve often associated with custom-built rugged devices. In essence, FirstNet looks to improve the functionality and integrate further, a piece of equipment already deemed critical by many first-responders. Often used unofficially for acquiring contextual information, communicating with co-workers, or accessing organizational email, smartphones on a dedicated first-responder network are more likely to be integrated with back-end information systems and other personal safety equipment; thus increasing the productivity and effectiveness of a largely mobile workforce.
As important, if not more important than a device ecosystem, a vibrant application ecosystem supplies the tools for modernizing workflows and providing first-responders with information fundamental to quick and appropriate decision-making. In particular, the RFP calls for the development of a “vibrant third-party applications developer community” and application store that will generate an “evolving portfolio of mobile and enterprise applications, as well as cloud services”. APCO International, the world’s largest public safety professional organization, understanding the importance of public safety mobile applications, created Appcomm.org in 2013. Initially listing 60 mobile applications dedicated to public safety, the site now provides access to over 200. First-responders can use these applications to improve their situational awareness, engage with the community, document evidence, and gain access to business-specific information in seconds. In this way, applications will undoubtedly change the way first-responders complete business processes by brokering access to important contextual information and enabling greater autonomy. Large and small software vendors alike have devoted resources to creating applications that address the unique needs of first-responders and encourage end-user adoption.
FirstNet’s RFP is intimidating with over 500 pages and 13 sections. This is indicative of the enormous scope of the LTE network project. With many individual moving parts vital to the success of the overall network, a strong and open relationship between U.S. agencies and the private sector is crucial. A number of early adopters—New Jersey, New Mexico, LA-RICS, Harris County—have provided test-cases for the large scale deployment that remains several years away. These experimental deployments should help develop guidelines and use-cases for how to best take advantage of the capabilities engendered in a dedicated first-responder LTE network. Moreover, the experiences of these communities should help mitigate obstacles such as balancing mobile security with usability. The network and the mobile devices on it will need strong security to protect the sensitive information housed on public safety networks. However, these security measures should be designed in a way that does not deter user-adoption or effectiveness. FirstNet will not be a panacea for all of the industry’s technical woes but rather is a stepping stone on the path to modernization; a path that will necessitate all communities buy into the benefits of mobility.
Written by Matthew Hopkins. For more information, be sure to review our forthcoming Public Safety View discussing FirstNet developments, set to be released next month (February), or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. The author can be contacted directly at email@example.com.