How Can Agencies Plan for a Future FirstNet Transition?

Today, many public safety and federal law enforcement agencies rely on mission-critical push-to-talk voice systems for command and control and situation awareness. Beyond push-to-talk voice, the vision of many federal, state, local, territorial, and tribal agencies is to also have broadband mobile access to use in their tactical environments for data applications and streaming video.

But today for many, data and video applications are only available in the traditional office. Also today’s commercial wireless broadband is offered by carriers only as a best available service. Such service does not meet the security and mission-critical grade service level requirements of public safety users, and it cannot easily be deployed in mission areas that are not currently served by and do not meet the business threshold of commercial network providers.

Moving from now to the future—FirstNet legislation

On February 22, 2012, the President signed into law the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012. Title VI of the law establishes FirstNet as an independent authority under the Department of Commerce, National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). Title VI also reallocates a large block of highly desired wireless spectrum, ideal for build-out of mobile Long Term Evolution (LTE) network, and $7B towards building a National Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN).

This future network will be built on LTE commercial wireless broadband mobility standards and it is envisioned to be fully interoperable with commercial wireless networks.


The law also seeks true interagency interoperability establishing the NPSBN as the common shared federal, state, local, territorial, and tribal public safety wireless infrastructure. The 15-member FirstNet Board of Directors includes the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Attorney General and the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB); along with 12 other representatives with unique backgrounds and qualifications specified in the law. Several other details, such as Federal Communications Commission incentive auctions to generate revenue for the network, research and development to address technology gaps, and grants for State and Local deployments are also addressed.

Getting us there—transition to FirstNet

Many view the transition to the FirstNet, NPSBN as a truly transformational advancement for the large public safety community. This opinion is based on a number of factors:

  • NPSBN brings the most advanced mobile capability that the commercial market has to offer
  • This capability has the ability to be customized to meet mission critical requirements
  • LTE standards lock in the cost efficiencies of the commercial mobility evolution path and device eco system
  • NPSB cuts across multiple independent industry and organizational technology tunnels
  • Finally, this capability addresses the need that has alluded public safety since 9/11, true voice, data and video Interagency Interoperability

Because this transition involves more than just technology, getting to the heart of mission operations, it will require careful planning and an agency-specific transition plan. These plans will provide the roadmap showing where and when to prudently begin introducing incremental steps down the path, with special attention to:

  • Agency unique mission need
  • ROI estimates
  •  Investment lifecycle considerations

In addition, because the transition shifts the business model and changes the technology architecture moving from thousands of independent proprietary stovepipe networks to a shared mission-critical grade commercial standards LTE network, it is disruptive on the industry side, calling for new partnerships and opportunities.

Many agencies and potential industry players will need assistance to better understand and maneuver through this major disruptive transformation. Traditional technology organization components, which have operated independently for decades in many agencies and in industry will need to be optimized as mission critical communications further intersects with information technology and commercial mobility in a bigger way than in the past. This will require careful examination of organizational structures to ensure they are wired correctly to foster the changes ahead.

Understand the situation to create a plan

Public Safety Agencies understand that sometime over the next decade they will migrate their mission critical communications needs for mobile data, video, and ultimately push-to-talk voice onto FirstNet. However, many also realize the value in having a transition strategy and target architecture to enable a successful migration—one that is prudent, cost effective, and with minimal disruption to their mission operational environment.

A good plan will be valuable for making prudent big dollar investment decisions (now and in the future), for minimizing risk, and for knowing when to begin introducing bridging solutions to maximize benefits, return on investment, and overall lifecycle cost.

Here are the most important points public safety agencies need to recognize:

  • FirstNet is coming
  •  It will have a significant impact on their future operational environment
  • Tactical mobile broadband has the ability to be a powerful tool and a force multiplier
  •  Developing a transition plan that is customized to the current agency environment is beneficial for:
    • Determining what incremental steps make sense for the agency based on mission need, ROI, and obsolescence considerations
    • Providing a roadmap to aid in evaluating upcoming investments to ensure they will be prudent, not face early obsolescence, and consistent with long term goals and targets
    • Determining which new bridging solutions (LMR and LTE) make sense to include as transition steps, which will enhance mission capabilities, will deliver a financial return and will be cost effective
    • Examining the organization to ensure it is properly wired to foster this disruptive new direction in mission critical communications

John Santo

John Santo has 36 years of professional experience and is a subject matter expert on National Public Safety Broadband topics. As a senior executive leader with substantial federal service, he has led several programs at the Department of Homeland Security, playing a key role in building and integrating new technology programs at Customs and Border Protection and at DHS Headquarters. Having worked in several offices and having led multiple Level I, over $1B, program offices, he gained extensive executive experience in: Secure Mission-Critical Command & Control Communications Technology, Border & Port Security Technology, Information Technology, and Law Enforcement & Investigative Technology.

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