Why it’s Taken 4 Years to Build FirstNet and Why it’s Absolutely Necessary

In Response to The Atlantic Monthly’s September Cover Article

By Mika Skarp

On September 11th 2001, I was living in San Diego working at Nokia. I had just returned from a business trip the night before and woke to a call and a terrified voice from home in Finland. “What’s going on?” I asked. What I heard and saw next, and what we all experienced unfold that day, changed us forever.

In a single stroke the rules of whatever game was being played had shifted radically. As first responders and later ground zero crews looked for survivors, the rest of the world looked for answers. While ordinary citizens wondered how it could have happened, lawmakers girded for a formalized global response. Meanwhile, public safety and security authorities, still embroiled in the aftermath, looked at what was done and how it might have been done better.

Tangled into the tragedy of the twin towers’ fall was the discovery of a failure of state and city first responders to communicate rapidly and effectively to avert further loss of life in the hours and minutes after the attack. The most critical failure was at the very outset of the horror when New York 911 operators’ lack of visibility into the situation all but compounded the loss. Their orders to victims, trapped above the points of impact, to remain where they were and not attempt evacuation on their own had tragic consequences. And later, as the north tower followed the south to implode under fire-induced structural failure, radio network repeaters melted away, making it impossible for first responders at ground level to communicate immediate danger to those inside.

In his September cover story editorial in this month’s issue of the Atlantic “The $47 Billion Network That’s Already Obsolete”, columnist Steven Brill decries what he sees as the failure of the U.S. Government to correctly identify and address the many operational gaps that exposed first responders to avoidable injury and death on September 11th. Centered on the proposed solution, FirstNet, he paints a picture of how overspending, misinformation, lax oversight and even hints of cronyism and corruption would mar the project from its inception.

Now 15 years since 9/11, FirstNet makes a convenient target for critique, but especially if we oversimplify the concept and sidestep the very real complexity of both the problem and the solution.

In the spirit of full-disclosure, I and my company, Finland-based Cloudstreet, are intimately involved in FirstNet, and central to many of the capabilities of the system that seemed to have fallen to the floor or Mr. Brill’s editing room.

Brill commences the piece with the charge that it was in fact a set of “false premises” that drove the idea of an overhauled public safety network to the top of the agenda after 9/11. While FirstNet is the proposed solution to the problems identified on 9/11, it was not a 15 year project. FirstNet was only founded in 2012. Prior to that, the effort to improve and expand the public safety radio network was managed piecemeal, and mostly involved very small-scale enhancements. Led by a team of first responders, fireman, police and paramedics under the chairmanship of Oregon Fire Chief Jeff Johnson, with a mandate to operate as an independent inter-agency body, FirstNet became a cause celebre for the creation of a nationwide interoperable network to serve first responders nation wide. The budget, originally set at $7 Billion was to develop a public RFP that would make this a reality. Although Brill’s click bait-worthy title suggests the project will run closer to $47 billion based on a GOA estimate, he fails to report that the organization’s first mandate — to liquidate federally owned and operated frequency spectrum — returned some $37 Billion to government coffers. And while it’s true that FirstNet will cost many billions before it is completed, so did the Interstate Highway System that has come to be an essential component of the American economic, social and cultural landscape.

So while it’s true that it has taken FirstNet four years to develop its blueprint, is Brill’s “failure to launch” critique a fair one considering the complexity of the task? What are the factors that have drawn out its deployment and is it truly, as Brill argues, a solution without a problem and already obsolete?

Taking issue with the “False Premises” premise of Brill’s article, we return to that fateful day and the manner in which a number of communication failures brought tragic results. Brill’s central argument hinges on the contention that FirstNet would have done nothing to address the inability of first responders outside the north tower to communicate with their colleagues on the inside. The scorching blaze had melted the wireless radio repeaters inside the tower, cutting off communications and any effective co-ordination efforts along with them.

“Whether police and fire commanders were coordinating with one another sufficiently in a command center — an issue raised in later investigations — has nothing to do with whether police and firefighters in the building should have been able to talk on interoperable radios.”

This is inaccurate, and a quick read of the FirstNet RFP makes that plain. It is precisely the problem of relying on a single, standalone, dedicated radio communications network that led to the death of those 128 firefighters. And it’s precisely this problem that FirstNet is working to solve. In a nutshell, the complete reliance on a non-redundant, non-distributed private radio network (similar to TETRA in Europe), was the reason the communications dropped when the repeaters failed.

This is a good starting point from which to unravel the many technical misapprehensions in the Atlantic piece. Brill spills a good amount of ink criticizing what he contends to be an untenably expensive idea; that of building a nationwide dedicated network for first responders. Evidenced by his argument, he seems to assume that FirstNet would be simply the creation of yet another private, closed system — the same kind that failed on 9/11 — only on a national scale.

FirstNet is in fact quite the opposite. It is a multi-generation leap forward that looks to migrate an entire nation’s public safety communications system off of closed private networks to multiple, interoperable public networks to ensure an unparalleled level of redundant coverage and yes, interoperability.

Quite to the contrary of what Brill says, Interoperability is exactly the issue.

But let’s take a look at what that means, and the technologies and solutions that must be in place to make that happen. Again, Brill’s article provides a good map of what the system is not.

“Yet in the FirstNet RFP itself there is mention of still another new technology — mobile cell towers — that telecommunications companies, perhaps with federal aid, could have on standby and deploy without building the entirely new, exclusive communications system envisioned by FirstNet. (Indeed, wouldn’t we want the mobile towers to be used to provide cell service to civilians trapped in these fires too, rather than only to first responders?)”

Brill seems to suggest, based on the mere mention of new cell towers, that the project involves building an entirely new telecom network across the U.S., solely dedicated to public safety. Though he does make mention of a certain consortium of telecom carriers working together to provide it, he goes on to suggest:

“Indeed, wouldn’t we want the mobile towers to be used to provide cell service to civilians trapped in these fires too, rather than only to first responders?”

Indeed we would, and in fact that is the most accurate point about FirstNet in the entire article. No, Verizon or AT&T do not need to build new towers from coast-to-coast to make FirstNet a reality. The very point of FirstNet is to allow the existing infrastructure of the U.S. mobile service grid to be accessible by public safety operatives as well as citizens. This will not only dramatically extend coverage in urban and rural areas, but deliver immediate interoperability by simply consolidating all agencies onto a single, unified public network.

Using Brill’s example of standard consumer iPhone features to prove FirstNet’s obsolescence is a good point of illustration. Though smart phones can do a lot of things, one thing they can’t do (yet) is jump from one service provider to another on a whim. Try that with your iPhone the next time your friend has a strong connection and you don’t. That said, were Apple to come aboard FirstNet that limitation might well go away. Is Tim Cook in the room?

And while in his iPhone example Brill focuses on the most rudimentary features of the current closed radio systems like two-way push-to-talk, he avoids looking in depth at the evolved public requirements of data-intensive public safety communications. Two-way push-to-talk is barely a snowflake on the tip of the iceberg. But in his argument he suggests that FirstNet has pulled a bait-and-switch by talking about dedicated bandwidth allocation for data. He then goes on to suggest that that too has already been solved by current technology, though he doesn’t say what technology he is referring to. Yes, dynamic dedicated bandwidth allocation technology exists, but it has yet to be deployed on anything like this scale and it is limited to two companies that we know of; Huawei in China and our own company Cloudstreet in Finland. It would be interesting to know precisely what technology Brill was talking about. Perhaps he visited our website.

To bring us back to the case at hand, yes, interoperability on a unified public network is the name of game, and yes, it is complicated. Translating protocols within networks operating multiple mobile standards is not a walk in the park. And further, in order to deliver this kind of inter-carrier interoperability dynamically — allowing dedicated mobile voice and data bearers to be swapped from network to network on-demand — is exponentially more difficult. Going back to the melted repeater example, with FirstNet in place, those 9/11 calls would have been rerouted through the closest available cell tower or repeater at the very instant of failure.

And now to the important issue of why the generational leap in public safety communications called FirstNet has taken so long to become a reality.

Without going into the terribly technical details of how the current public safety communications radio networks operate, it’s good to get our bearings on the limitations of our current public wireless networks. To be able to launch services on top of any network, you need to have coverage first and capacity second. At present, there is no public safety network based on 3G, but this technology is used every day for public safety purposes. This means that even the extent to which public safety networks use public wireless spectrum, they are a generation and a half behind.

Fast forward to 2012–2013 and the arrival of 4G/LTE and advent of truly robust data networks. While we all immediately saw the opportunity to bring these new capabilities to public safety, they were never deployed in this capacity, and the economics behind that decision strikes at the very heart of the FirstNet value proposition.

Simply put, these technologies were prohibitively expensive to deploy on private networks, and their business models quickly evaporated through a lack of any economies of scale. Take Europe’s TETRA networks as an example. Deployed throughout the continent, they soon began to lag behind the rapid innovations taking place in the consumer and business handset market. While this single use network with aging technology from end-to-end was just as costly to operate and maintain as a large-scale public network, it only had 1% of the mobile user base. It was also a waste of valuable and finite frequency spectrum. The same kind of spectrum, by the way, that FirstNet saw through the sale of, returning $37 Billion to U.S. taxpayers. What I am describing here seems to be quite close what Steven Brill thinks FirstNet is. Quite to the contrary, however, it’s the very failure of TETRA style networks and the U.S.’s own private network that came to a head on 9/11, inspired FirstNet and drove the consensus that something new was needed.

Still it was with the arrival of 4G/LTE that the vision for FirstNet truly came into focus. 4G/LTE’s robust technology and architecture meant that traffic could be differentiated within a mobile network dynamically. This is not a feature of 4G but something that 4G allows to happen with the right mix of technologies. We now refer to this capability generically as “Network Slicing”. In this paradigm, we can not only maintain a set of static, dedicated bearers, but when the network is congested, we can lower capacity for some users and maintain it or increase it for others. And when this is done on the application level dynamically, the user experience will remain the same for all users most of the time. With this groundbreaking development we can, for the very first time, utilize public spectrum and allocate it both statically and dynamically for the gamut of pubic safety applications.

When it comes to ensuring life-essential connectivity and capacity the data is critical to making the case, and here again FirstNet is at the very cutting edge. The reliability figures in networks with technology like the Dynamic Profile Controller are close to 99.99% for mission-critical applications at 2 MBps capacity. This alone will reduce the cost of rolling out public safety broadband networks to fractions, while allowing specialty equipment, like say purpose-built firefighting devices, to be used on the same networks the rest of us use.

To this end, FirstNet will use the original $7 billion allocation to deliver its service for years into the future. It is lot of money, but in the telecom context it’s but a drop in the bucket. Consider the fact that Verizon alone spends roughly $20 Billion every year to maintain a similar commercial network, and FirstNet begins to look rather inexpensive. Add to that the safety-critical role it will play and the spend would seem in fact quite minimal.

After Brill’s attempt to paint FirstNet as an over-priced technological failure, he moves on to suggest that the state-by-state buy-in licensing scenario will not fly. In fact, FirstNet will be there whether a state wants to use it or not, but the considerable technological advantages and cost savings of doing so will soon become apparent. FirstNet, by its very design will create an interoperable platform for private sector innovators to create new applications and devices, opening up an entirely new business ecosystem for public safety technology. From ideas on how use cloud computing in real time patrolling, including real time face/text recognition, to accessing building plans, distributing live HD video from drones and even running virtual reality field training, the sky isn’t even the limit. Additionally, these new innovations will inevitably find their way to commercial deployment, providing additional licensing opportunities, sector growth, jobs and higher GDP.

This would never have been possible or viable under the old models.

Yes, it certainly has taken a number of years to develop the technology, business model and needed regulation to deliver FirstNet. And interestingly, as obsolete as Brill says it is, it is now the blueprint for other countries developing their own, similar hybrid public safety networks. At present, there are FirstNet-like projects in development in Mexico and Canada with Northern Europe soon to follow. Meanwhile Korea and the UK are already in the delivery phase of their own parallel projects.

There’s no doubt that FirstNet is an ambitious undertaking, and one that perhaps requires more communications and PR to loop the public into its important developments. But like the Interstate Highway System or even the Space Program (and quite unlike The Manhattan Project), its focus must remain on the goal, and that certainly is an important and timely one.

(Photo Credit: Defenseone.com)