The Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, chaired by Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR), today held a hearing entitled "Oversight of the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) and Emergency Communications." Created by the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, FirstNet is tasked with building and maintaining a nationwide, interoperable broadband public safety network. Members heard from FirstNet, states, and private sector entities that want to partner to explore ways to improve the connectivity, reliability, and security of this nationwide public safety network.
"The legislation as adopted was not my preferred approach for many of the reasons expressed in today's prepared testimony. I favored construction from the bottom up, not the top down, with certain minimum interoperability requirements and commercial providers running the network in partnership with the states," said Walden. "That approach is by no means guaranteed by the legislation as finally passed. But we must do our best to implement that model within the confines of the law if this endeavor is going to succeed. We owe it to the state and local first responders that risk their lives for ours, the men and women who are the literal boots on the ground. And we owe it to the taxpayers, who funded it up front with up to $7 billion in federal revenue, and who will fund it over the long-haul through their state and local taxes."
Sam Ginn, Chairman of First Responder Network Authority, explained the challenges the FirstNet Board is currently facing in establishing this first-of-its-kind nationwide interoperable public safety network. He said, "Deploying a public safety grade wireless broadband network with the scale of U.S. nationwide geographic coverage is an international first. The FirstNet network will be distinctive from all other networks in two critical ways. First, it will be the only network that is ever built entirely to public safety-level specifications for security and reliability. Second, it will be the only network to cover an entire nation of our size geographically, as opposed to coverage by population centers. Combine these two features and you begin to see just how groundbreaking -- and challenging -- our task is."
Chris McIntosh, Virginia's Statewide Interoperability Coordinator, and Ray Lehr, Director of Maryland's Statewide Communications Interoperability Program, both explained the hurdles some states are facing with FirstNet and ways the states can be better involved to improve the nationwide network on a more local level.
"To be successful in achieving our combined goal of a nationwide interoperable broadband capability for public safety, a successful model must be developed that falls somewhere in between the extremes "opt in vs. opt out,' focusing on a sense of cooperation and problem solving that can result in an evolutionary leap forward in communications capabilities while providing adequate fiscal protection for its participants," said. McIntosh. "FirstNet cannot be expected to understand each state's unique circumstances and needs. It is through a partnership between the states and localities, their existing governance structures, and the FirstNet board that this program will be successful."
"Only the states and local public safety leaders can speak to their needs. This early input will ensure the network meets the expectations of each community," added Lehr.
Furthermore, Rear Admiral James A. Barnett, Jr., Esq., Co-Chair of the Telecommunications Group at Venable LLP, added, "FirstNet should adopt a principle of national interoperability, but local control. One size does not fit all. Some states and localities may wish to combine into regions for the network. Some may wish to form public-private partnerships with carriers or public utilities. Some may be able to obtain essential network funding if they are allowed to proceed now with their deployment plans."
The subcommittee also discussed other emergency communications systems used to communicate between public safety and the general public. Members heard from representatives of the wireless industry, the broadcast industry, the traditional 9-1-1 emergency communications systems, and the FCC to get a better understanding of how well the communication systems are working to get information from the community to the individual and vice versa.
"We have learned time and again that in times of natural and national disaster communication among our first responders is key. Ensuring communication lines are open to the public is equally important," said Walden. "Despite its more than 60 years of existence in one form or another, the Emergency Alert System was only recently tested on a national level. While more than 90 percent of the stations properly ran the test message, technical challenges prevented stations in my home state of Oregon and elsewhere from receiving the message. This could have been catastrophic in a real emergency and must be resolved in short order."