Photo of Al Catalano

The recent negative article on FirstNet that appeared in the Atlantic, “The $47 Billion Network That’s Already Obsolete” is an inaccurate critique of the First Responder Network Authority, otherwise known as FirstNet. To say the network is “obsolete” is so far off the mark that it is laughable.

There is little doubt that a nationwide public safety broadband network is needed to bring state-of-the-art technologies to first responders across the country. FirstNet is an outgrowth of the tragedy of 911 and the devastation of Hurricane Sandy which demonstrated the need for interoperable broadband communications among public safety agencies and personnel. Understandably, the Atlantic article was met by a unanimous backlash from public safety officials and associations supportive of FirstNet’s mission.

FirstNet was created by an Act of Congress in 2012 and contrary to the implications of the Atlantic article is led by some of the most dedicated public officials anyone could imagine. These individuals have worked tirelessly to bring the nation a public safety communications network that will serve our country for generations to come.

FirstNet is currently in the process of selecting a private sector partner to build, operate and maintain the network. After that selection, individual buildout plans for a Radio Access Network (“RAN”) will be presented to each state (and territory) for review. Together, these plans are the building blocks for a nationwide network, which under the law that created FirstNet must include substantial rural coverage.

Just how rural coverage is addressed remains a major issue for FirstNet. In order to reduce costs of the network, there has been much talk about FirstNet meeting its rural coverage requirements with deployables, such as drones, “cells on wheels” and balloons, rather than with permanent facilities spanning rural America. Some believe that such an approach, favoring urban areas at the expense of rural coverage, is simply not sufficient under the law. States will have the opportunity to develop their own RAN if they are not satisfied with the FirstNet approach. Time will tell whether the States and FirstNet can come together on the critical issue of rural coverage. So, while FirstNet certainly does not deserve any criticism for its efforts to date, let’s not start the victory parade just yet.