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First responders across a variety of fields connected by a network

FirstNet is Interoperability

October 29, 2020

The vision for a Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (FirstNet) is rooted in the interoperability challenges that have faced our nation’s first responders for decades. The 9/11 attacks served as a catalyst for recommendations from the 9/11 Commission for interoperability across networks that transcend individual agencies. 

Congressional action led to the development of the organization that I lead, the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet Authority), that is charged by federal law to ensure the building, deployment, operation, and improvement of the nationwide public safety broadband network in consultation with public safety.

After the FirstNet Authority was established, we quickly went to work through the State and Local Implementation Grant Program (SLIGP) and each state’s FirstNet Authority Single Point of Contact (SPOC) to engage directly with tens of thousands of public safety officials across all 50 states, 5 territories and the District of Columbia (DC) to fully understand all of the unique requirements of the agencies we serve. We also developed our Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC), an advisory body, established in the same law that created the FirstNet Authority, to provide advice, guidance, and subject matter expertise required for the Authority to carry out its mission and responsibilities.

After almost 2 years of effort, collection of millions of data points, multiple requests for information (RFI’s) from industry, and comprehensive engagement with public safety across all 56 states, territories, and DC – through the FirstNet Authority SPOCs and PSAC members, it was absolutely clear that America’s first responders expected a single, highly robust and nationwide network that was fully operable for all jurisdictions and disciplines no matter where in the country they were operating.

It was also clear that public safety expected us to aim squarely at solving the interoperability issue that had plagued effective public safety communications for decades by ensuring that we did not repeat the mistakes of the past – we could not create a patchwork of disparate and incompatible broadband networks, and we had to implement a network based upon open standards. This highly-focused, collaborative effort led the FirstNet Authority to decide upon a contract approach for a single nationwide partner that would build a single, nationwide network to ensure full operability anywhere in the country and meet the expectations (called “objectives” in our request for proposal (RFP)) of public safety.

In 2017, after a fully open and competitive procurement process, we selected our single nationwide partner AT&T to build, operate, and maintain FirstNet, and together we have delivered the only fully dedicated nationwide public safety network in the history of our great nation. FirstNet is fully operable for all of its subscribers, which according to AT&T, total more than 14,000 public safety agencies and over 1.7 million connections.

The first responder subscribers from these agencies enjoy full, seamless operability with one another and represent every public safety discipline and all levels of government in the 56 jurisdictions that we serve. Because we based FirstNet on open international wireless standards as required by Congress, and created objectives requiring AT&T through our contractual agreement to meet those standards, the network is interoperable with other standards-based mobility networks. Our users can talk, text and exchange data with the users of commercial wireless networks across the globe.

Recent claims that there is a lack of interoperability with FirstNet and that special interoperability solutions are needed are simply not true – they ring hollow for those who understand the value of a nationwide public safety broadband network and that rely on FirstNet to keep them mission ready every day. They depend on us for public safety standardized features, such as Mission Critical Push-to-Talk, aka FirstNet Push to Talk, and things as simple as sending a text to a public safety counterpart using another commercial wireless service. Because we are fully committed to international standards, they all work seamlessly.

In fact, the 2012 legislation that created the FirstNet Authority not only called for our broadband network to be based on 3GPP standards, but required us to be actively involved in standards organizations representing public safety.  This legislation recognized that standards-based solutions not only provide interoperability, but also foster creative innovation for Mission Critical services, provide economies of scale, and provide for multiple suppliers of services which typically leads to lower costs. To reinforce this commitment to standards, our contract with AT&T requires the use of interoperable standards-based solutions.

Just to emphasize our commitment to standards, a recent article in the “Public Safety Advocate” referenced that the FirstNet Authority has been actively working to develop standards for mission critical services in 3GPP since 2012.  In collaboration with global public safety colleagues in 3GPP and AT&T, the FirstNet Authority led the charge to complete standards for mission critical services, such as Push-to-Talk, Video, and Data, including enablers such as direct mode device-to-device (D2D) and group communication services (e.g. Multimedia Broadcast Multicast Services (MBMS). We continue to work on enhancing these standards and evolving them for inclusion in 5G and ensure that the needs of first responders are addressed, now and in the future.  In addition to the work in 3GPP, the FirstNet Authority and AT&T have been actively involved in developing standards for interworking new broadband mission critical services with legacy Land Mobile Radio systems.  

We are responsible for keeping public safety’s unique communication needs at the forefront of technology and as a result, FirstNet is the fully operable communications network that public safety asked for, it is available today and, as public safety’s communications needs advance, it will continue to grow and evolve for decades to come.