When trouble hits, people use their phones to call for help, check on the status of friends and family or to let those folks know that they are okay. This is a natural first reaction. The problem is that it can interfere with first responder communications.

And that’s not the only problem first responders have. The fragmentary nature of emergency communications means that different types of first responders generally have trouble communicating. For instance, police may not be able to easily trade information with emergency medical services. A third level of challenge occurs when crews arrive from elsewhere. Towns next door to each other may not use the same technology.

The need to do something about the situation is a common refrain after each successive emergency. Now, however, something really is being done in the United States. Though FirstNet was not formed until 2013, the impetus was the September, 2001 attacks. It’s an independent authority in the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) which, in turn, is part of the US Department of Commerce. 

The major contractor for the project is AT&T. It’s a 25-year deal. In exchange for having access to 20 MHz of high quality spectrum, AT&T will spend $40 billion to build, deploy, operate and maintain the wireless network. The telco will provide network access valued at $180 billion. An important caveat is that FirstNet will have priority on the network. If an emergency occurs, AT&T will give way to the network’s emergency functions.

States are in the process of deciding whether or not they want to participate. Last week, Urgent Communications reported that Montana become the 11th state to opt in. It followed the lead of Virginia – the first to sign on – Wyoming, Arkansas, Kentucky, Iowa, New Jersey, West Virginia, New Mexico, Michigan and Maine. The US Virgin Islands is onboard as well. 

The timeline is starting to get crowded. A graphic at Wireless Estimator (which was probably produced by FirstNet or an ecosystem member) maps out the early timeline. In June, FirstNet and AT&T presented states with customized plans. The states provided feedback from June 19 to August 4. AT&T and FirstNet will look through the comments until September 4. At some point in the middle of next month, the governors of the state will officially be informed that a 90-day decision time clock has started. States then will have until the middle of December to decide. A lack of response will be considered a decision to opt-out.

It is a complex task, perhaps unlike anything previously undertaken. StateScoop offers detailed insight into what states are facing as they consider whether to participate. The sense is that there are concerns on the part of state officials but that there is momentum to join. 

Virginia Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security and Public Safety Curtis Brown testified about his concerns but came to the conclusion that opting out was not a viable solution. The story quotes him as accentuating the positive:

“Opting in does not commit the Commonwealth to any role in the FirstNet buildout," Brown explained. "FirstNet and AT&T will build, operate, and maintain the Commonwealth’s portion of the National Public Safety Broadband Network at no cost to Virginia. […] Opting out would have required accepting the unknown associated costs and risks for the ongoing deployment, operation, maintenance, and improvement of the network [in Virginia].”

Some states will opt out. Those that do must form their own network in the spectrum reserved for FirstNet. The FCC has released guidelines for these states. One requirement is an alternative network must be compatible with FirstNet, according to FCW. 

One candidate is being quarterbacked by Rivada Networks. The company unsuccessfully protested the AT&T contract and now is heading a consortium aimed at building alternative networks. It consists of a group of heavy hitters: Harris Corp., Intel, Fujitsu, Ericsson and Nokia. Another alternative emerged on August 16, when Verizon said that it would build a first responder network as well.

There’s a lot of good news here. Whenever a natural or manmade disaster occurs and communications platforms melt down, voices are raised about improving the communications infrastructure. Those voices usually fade away, with perhaps implementation of useful but short-term stop-gap capacity boosters such as cells on wheels, cells on light trucks (COWs and COLTs) and drones.

FirstNet and the other approaches take these efforts much further. That’s the real good news: The government and private sector finally have taken real steps towards creating permanent, stable and interoperable first responder networks that will serve the entire country.