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First Responder Networks Must Interoperate

Carl Weinschenk

There has been a lot of news lately about first responder networks. Most of it has been made by AT&T, which struck a deal with the government to build an expansive network in exchange for access to the bandwidth when things are calm.

States are joining the network at a consistent pace. Last week, Telecompetitor reported that Texas, Idaho and Maryland have opted into a first responders network. That brings the total to 23 states and territories. Earlier this month, FirstNet announced a 2018 fiscal year budget of $73.5 million.

It’s more or less impossible to be against creation of an effective and efficient emergency response network, so this can all be put in the good news column.

This is not the only issue in play, however. At least two other first responder initiatives are on the horizon. One is from Verizon and the other from Rivada Mercury, which lost a lawsuit concerning how the U.S. Department of the Interior handled the bidding process that AT&T eventually won. The company has not aborted its first responder network aspirations. Earlier this month, it announced an agreement with New Hampshire and U.S. Cellular for creation of a wireless first responders’ network.


A key question is cooperation between those that actually make it to deployment. Telecommunications providers and their ecosystems are highly competitive. Two of the players recently sat face to face in a courtroom. Will the common good prevail and these players cooperate to the extent that it is necessary?

The first thing to consider is how much cooperation is required. There appear to be two levels to this. One is geographic. An advantage of the holistic network approach is that first responders from one town, when called upon to help with an emergency in another, will be able to fluidly and comprehensively communicate with first responders in the town they are helping. The question becomes whether a system of interoperable communications will be in place for a communities served by different emergency networks.

The other element is the cost of doing business. If the systems are fundamentally different, the supplier ecosystems that supply radios, apps and other hardware and software necessary to make create these networks will be fragmented. Different products will be necessary for each network. This will make the goal of revolutionizing the way in which first responders communicate far more difficult to achieve.


A story at Urgent Communications that includes comments by Don Brittingham, Verizon’s vice president of Public Safety Policy, does not raise high hopes. The good news is that he says the carrier would commit to engineering its devices to accommodate the spectrum in which FirstNet will operate. The remainder of his comments on the subject, however, fall into the typical positioning and competitive language.

Hopefully, the three organizations will put the business-as-usual positioning aside and work to integrate whatever networks end up being built. Without doing so, these networks – while an improvement over the complete fragmentation common today – will not reach their full potential.

Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at cweinsch@optonline.net and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.


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