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$7 Billion Disconnect: FirstNet Aims to Get First Responders Talking 12 Years After 9/11

Jan. 22, 2013 - 11:00AM   |  
By ARAM ROSTON   |   Comments
A firefighter uses a radio while battling a wildfire in California. The $7 billion FirstNet effort, intended to provide a nationwide broadband communications system for first responders, would not fix the interoperability problems faced by users of push-to-talk radios.
A firefighter uses a radio while battling a wildfire in California. The $7 billion FirstNet effort, intended to provide a nationwide broadband communications system for first responders, would not fix the interoperability problems faced by users of push-to-talk radios. (Getty Images)
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The city of Winchester, at the northern gateway to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, has a population of 26,000, lots of history and not a lot of money to spend on its emergency communications. But new federal rules required the city to upgrade the aging radio dispatch gear — much of it more than 25 years old — that serves its small fire and police departments.

So Winchester’s part-time emergency management coordinator led the effort to buy a whole new network: radios, transmitters, repeaters and the rest. Ultimately, the cash-strapped city agreed to pay $3.5 million for a system in the 800-megahertz radio spectrum.

Here’s the rub: The tiny city is set within rural Frederick County, where the fire and sheriff’s departments use very high frequency radios. VHF radios can’t receive 800-megahertz signals.

Winchester wanted VHF, but it couldn’t get sufficient licenses from the Federal Communications Commission, so it was forced to an incompatible frequency.

It’s as if one town in Virginia tried to use a 220-volt electrical system while the county around it used 110 volts. Just plugging in a toaster would get complicated. So just to talk to Frederick County, Winchester is going to have to buy special, dual-band radios and special interoperability patches.

After 11 years and billions of homeland-security dollars spent since 9/11, Winchester’s plight remains maddeningly common. With radio systems set up town by town, county by county and state by state — sometimes even department by department — America’s police and fire departments are still awash in a sea of networks and frequencies that often can’t communicate with each other.

In February, lawmakers tried to do something about the problem. For the first time, Congress set aside a group of frequencies — a third of the 700-megahertz range — specifically for the nation’s fire departments, police agencies and paramedics. The legislation, appended to the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, established the First Responder Network Authority, known as FirstNet.

FirstNet, led by a board within the Commerce Department, is intended to create a nationwide broadband communications system for emergency and public safety workers.

With $7 billion in funding, FirstNet is one of the most important developments in emergency infrastructure in decades. If things work as planned, police officers in Portland, Ore., will have access to the same vast network as paramedics across the country in Portland, Maine. A lot is at stake, and not just for the 2.5 million men and women who work in public safety and fire and rescue jobs. Or the states and local governments that have been playing catch-up with technology.

In an era of fiscal cutbacks, when the Pentagon and other agencies are wary of major commitments, communications companies see immense possibilities in FirstNet. Among the companies hoping to participate, according to comments filed with the new board, are General Dynamics C4 Systems, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Harris, SAIC and Raytheon.

But there are a few big catches.

The first revolves around the word “broadband.” FirstNet is designed to help connect computers and mobile computing devices, not the hardy, push-to-talk radios carried by police and fire workers everywhere. It will not tame the workaday interoperability problems faced by Winchester and thousands of local governments like it.

On top of that, the Congressional Research Service points to political, regulatory and technological “risks” in FirstNet that may “undermine its business plan and erode its credibility,” among other concerns.

Then there is the 800-pound gorilla in the room: Motorola Solutions, the company that has dominated public service communications in the United States for decades. Will this restructuring of the industry change all that?

Finally, the project may be vastly underfunded. Although $7 billion seems like a vast sum for a civilian communications program in these dark fiscal days, the consensus is that it’s nowhere near enough.

Fourteen minutes after a hijacked airliner plowed into the World Trade Center’s North Tower on Sept. 11, 2001, the Port Authority Police Department radioed orders to evacuate the entire complex in lower Manhattan. But the order wasn’t heard by the deputy fire safety director in the South Tower, whose radio operated on different frequencies. Three minutes later, a second airplane hit his tower.

This and similar communications breakdowns led the 9/11 Commission, in its 2004 report, to urge Congress for “legislation which provides for the expedited and increased assignment of radio spectrum for public safety purposes.”

“It was one of the most — if not the most — important recommendations the commission made,” said John Farmer, the commission’s former general counsel.

Now that the FirstNet legislation has finally arrived — eight years later — Farmer wants to cheer, but he’s not sure if he can.

“It’s kind of a mystery,” he said. “No one knows how this is going to work.”

To a modern consumer, a nationwide broadband system may sound like just the thing to replace the heavy, old-fashioned radios that officials have been lugging around for decades. Even experts say the frequencies set aside by Congress are ideal.

“The 700 Mhz range is a good one,” said telecommunications entrepreneur Morgan O’Brien, a former FCC lawyer who founded Nextel, a pioneer in digital push-to-talk systems that was sold to Sprint in 2005. “If God were to put in his own wireless system, he would put it there.”

O’Brien, who has spent his life in radio, speaks of the frequencies with the passion a connoisseur might use to discuss fine wine: They are “phenomenal,” he says, and offer “wonderful propagation characters and penetration characteristics.”

Such frequencies might allow laptops, tablets and smartphones to connect easily and anywhere to transmit and receive video, photographs and even texts. This would offer better reliability than the commercial services, such as AT&T or Verizon, that connect Panasonic Toughbooks bolted in police cars.

But there’s one huge gap: FirstNet wouldn’t handle push-to-talk radio, at least not for a long time. This type of technology doesn’t handle radio, which is what police and firefighters use to talk to their headquarters and each other. Voice doesn’t come through reliably enough over the broadband system.

Heather Hogsett monitors the issue for the National Governors Association, where she directs the Public Safety and Homeland Security committee.

“Right now,” she said, “the technology standard — LTE, to which the public safety broadband system is going to be built — right now, they have to figure out how to do mission-critical voice on that technology.”

Which is to say that FirstNet would not fulfill the most fundamental need.

“They are working on that,” Hogsett said. “It could be 10 years. It could be 15 years.”

O’Brien concedes the point.

“In a public safety situation, you are in a ‘shoot’ or ‘don’t shoot’ situation,” he said. “You can’t have a situation where a packet is corrupted and ‘shoot’ sounds like ‘don’t shoot.’Ÿ”

This leaves people like Farmer, the 9/11 Commission lawyer, shaking their heads.

“Who is going to have the time to text back and forth while you are running up and down the steps of a burning tower, or trying to rescue someone in the water in a hurricane?” he said.

Motorola Solutions reigns supreme in the public safety communications industry, and it has for decades. The company makes excellent, durable, rugged and hardened radio systems, and it knows what police officers and firefighters need to get their jobs done.

The company makes eight of every 10 deployed emergency radio systems. (That’s the expert consensus; Motorola says the figure exaggerates its market dominance but declined to give a different figure.)

But this dominance has not fostered interoperability. Quite the opposite: Many in the communications world say Motorola has profited from the scattershot nature of emergency radio systems in the U.S. With small departments all buying different equipment, there has been little economy of scale.

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, a professor at the University of Oxford, studies information flow and the U.S. public safety market. He says in past years Motorola fought interoperability because the company felt it might cut into its market share.

“Motorola,” he said, “was very actively lobbying in the U.S. against interoperability and interoperability mandates.”

Lobbying records show that Motorola Solutions does spend millions on lobbyists each year. This year, it signed up powerful Republican lobbyist Haley Barbour, the former governor of Mississippi, to “monitor and provide guidance and strategic counsel on federal actions impacting state and local broadband projects.”

Even the FCC says the market in public safety radio is distorted.

“The staff of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau believe that proprietary solutions and market dominance play an important role in the problems with interoperability, innovation, cost and competition in the market for public safety communications equipment,” according to a letter the agency sent to Congress in 2010.

Bob Schassler, Motorola’s senior vice president in the government market segment, said the criticism is not “fact-based.”

“It’s very easy for competitors to raise that,” Schassler said. “Any company that has a No. 1 market share has criticism.”

Interoperability, he said, was largely due to a “mishmash” of radio spectrums and a lack of a central standard for radios.

“With the radio network, we’ve come a long way,” but “as a country, we still have some issues out there,” he said.

Public service radio is what Motorola Solutions is best at, he said, and would-be competitors — who are critical — often don’t understand the technical challenges.

“When people try to get into the business,” he said, “it’s very hard for companies to get into it because they don’t realize the amount of technology that goes into these radios.”

He points out that Motorola radios have to be rugged and durable enough to handle being carried in fires and operating in storms year after year. On top of that, the company argues, Motorola has already worked on interoperability projects state by state. In Maryland, for example, the entire state is now on an interoperable system.

Schassler also emphasizes that many of the problems emergency workers have talking to each other have receded. There’s now a standard that allows different systems to communicate with each other in many cases, he said.

Still, one executive from another company — a company that’s hoping to get a piece of the FirstNet business — said the first piece of business may be breaking Motorola’s lock on the industry.

That’s why they did it. “Right now,” he said, “Motorola holds the networks and the handsets.”

But FirstNet isn’t necessarily a threat to Motorola, in the short term. Since the new network won’t even handle mission-critical radio, the bulk of Motorola’s business should remain the same.

Schassler said FirstNet is really just a “supplement” to first-responder communications — not a replacement.

“It’s a supplement to radios, and we’re excited about it,” he said. “I see it supplementing mission-critical voice for the next 10 years, at least.”

In any case, Motorola has already been stepping into the broadband waters — and possibly ahead of the competition. The company had a deal — now on hold — to build a federally funded broadband system called BayWeb, part of the Commerce Department’s Broadband Technologies Opportunity Program, which would be similar to FirstNet, though on a regional scale.

In Texas, Harris County received a waiver from the FCC to build a broadband system, and Motorola signed a sole-source contract with the county and is going ahead with it. In its comments to the FirstNet board in its preliminary information-gathering stage, Motorola said it wants places like Harris County to become a building block for the nationwide network.

“FirstNet should facilitate progress by allowing ‘early deployment’ projects to expedite the build-out of the FNN [FirstNet Network] for our nation’s first responders,” the company wrote.

Think of Winchester, Va., again, for a moment.

Motorola was the only bidder for its radio system, said Lynn Miller, the former firefighter who set it all up. He said no other company bothered, so there wasn’t any competition. (In a hint at just how complicated all this is, the city was required to build a new system to comply with a different crisis facing public safety radios: The FCC is narrowing the bands that can be used.)

Costs for the city are steep. It is budgeting $3.5 million, and about 600 radios will be purchased. There’s another way to look at the math: There are about 90 professional firefighters and paramedics, a Police Department 74 strong and a dozen or so members of the sheriff’s office. That comes out to $17,500 for each firefighter or law enforcement officer.

“There is not anything that is inexpensive about public safety communications,” Miller said.

About 50 miles southeast of Winchester is the city of Warrenton, seat of Fauquier County. In the basement of the sheriff’s office sits the county communications center, with six dispatch stations — desks with four computer consoles at each. Each dispatcher handles the 911 calls coming in and the radio calls heading out.

There’s a light over each station: It goes red when dispatchers are handling a 911 call, so everyone knows to leave them be, and it goes yellow when they’re on the radios sending out the sheriff’s deputies, fire department or paramedics.

Bill Duggan is the assistant communications manager. Until two years ago, he said, interoperability was a major problem. He pointed at some bins of radios on a shelf.

“You would take a low-band radio like this,” he said, pointing at one bin, “and an 800 [megahertz] radio like that, and you don’t know if the batteries are working in it ’cause you never use it. And then when you picked them up, they weren’t working. That’s how you did it before.”

He laughed.

Now, the commonwealth of Virginia is implementing a Web-based system called Comlink to help link all the radio stations. Warrenton is one of the jurisdictions using it.

But there’s a weak link: If the sheriff’s connection to the Internet — which is through a commercial carrier — drops off, Comlink disappears.

Capt. Micah Meadows heads the city’s communications department. He’s enthusiastic about using 4G and data in law enforcement and says public safety needs to keep up with the times.

“Most youth today,” Meadows said, “think that you can text to 911.”

Data means better information for the field: “We will be able to tell when the vehicle crashed, the position of the vehicle, whether the airbag crashed. All the data that exists today, but we don’t get it today.”

But will all of this data ever replace radio?

“Never!” he said. “You will need that communication ability.”

Meanwhile, Meadows said Fauquier County is about to spend $10 million on an upgrade. Motorola, he said, won’t continue to support the radio hardware without the upgrade. He said the county’s radios cost $4,000 each for portable handsets and $4,500 each for the radios installed in vehicles.

There is no deadline for FirstNet to build its nationwide system, and it’s unclear for now just how it will be constructed. States will have the option to opt out if they build a similar system — whatever that may prove to be.

One thing is clear: The technology it will use is what’s known as 4G LTE, for Long Term Evolution.

As for the towers, the network and the control, it may be a mix of new and existing commercial infrastructure. The law says it must rely on existing infrastructure “to the maximum extent economically desirable.”

Some of the contractors already have some infrastructure that they hope can be incorporated. But no matter what happens, a lot of new towers will be built, and that is pricey: Towers cost at least $100,000 each to build and can reach $300,000.

On top of that, 4G technology relies on its own type of equipment, called Evolved Node B, or eNodeB. The Congressional Research Service says “industry experts have projected that FirstNet will need at least 40,000 eNodeB installations to provide nationwide coverage.”

There’s widespread skepticism about whether $7 billion, which will be raised through a special FCC auction of frequencies, will be enough for all this. When the FCC suggested a similar network as part of a “National Broadband Plan,” it budgeted between $16 billion and $18 billion.

Motorola’s Schassler said, “$16 billion is reasonable,” but “we should be able to build a pretty darn good network for our nation for $7 billion. It’s a lot of money. Now how to get enough bang for your buck? You’ve got a tough job ahead of you.”

O’Brien said any amount is encouraging: “$2 billon, $7 billion, whatever it will be, is manna from heaven. It’s wonderful. Seven billion [dollars] is not enough, but it’s wonderful.”

Of course, that’s just talking about the start-up costs. A CRS memo says one study estimates that operating costs over 10 years would total an additional $8 billion.

No matter how many billions it costs, for many firefighters, paramedics and police officers like those in Winchester, the federal government’s FirstNet, for years to come, will be irrelevant.

———

This article appears in the January-February issue of C4ISR Journal.

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