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LTE network for US public safety taking it one step at a time

Stephen Lawson | July 29, 2014
The organisers of the FirstNet LTE public safety network have the frequencies and standards they need to build the system, and they know where the money's coming from. They know how to get there from here, but it won't be a quick trip.

"The geography and the needs of public safety in Maryland are probably very different from the needs in Alaska," Kennedy said.

Ultimately, each state and territory will choose whether to build the local wireless portion of the network themselves or have FirstNet do it. They can't opt out of the system altogether. Once the wireless infrastructure is in place, individual police departments, fire departments and other agencies will sign up and pay for service on FirstNet in much the same way they now buy service from a commercial mobile operator. FirstNet expects the service to be competitively priced, Kennedy said.

The network itself will be built and operated by carriers or other bidders that respond to FirstNet RFPs (requests for proposals), which will lay out the requirements for the system. Those criteria are still being set.

There's better news on the funding and technology for FirstNet.

Though not all the money is there yet, the funding sources for the system are secure, Kennedy said. The law that authorizes the network says the money to build it will come from three national auctions of wireless spectrum, which are forecast to bring in about US$7 billion. One of those, the so-called H Block auction, has already generated about $1.5 billion. Still to come are the sale of a band called AWS-3 to mobile operators, coming in November, and later the so-called incentive auctions to convert TV frequencies to mobile broadband.

FirstNet is also likely to be an easy fit with other networks and devices. It's designed to run entirely on IP (Internet Protocol), with a fast wired backbone in the core and LTE wireless networks at the edge. Because all the major commercial carriers in the U.S. use LTE, any gear that goes into the network or into first responders' hands can be based on the same mass-produced technologies, keeping costs down.

Unlike current public-safety systems, FirstNet will also have enough bandwidth to carry voice, video and data on mobile devices. The network has been assigned a 20MHz chunk of spectrum in the 700MHz band, comparable to what the major commercial carriers are using in that band. Carriers like 700MHz for its long-reaching signals and ability to penetrate walls.

Some devices on the market already are equipped to use FirstNet's band, and more will follow, Kennedy said. Some other countries have adopted the same band for public safety, most importantly Canada, which shares a continent-wide border with the U.S. This could allow for interoperability between U.S. and Canadian systems if needed, he said.



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