CTO Download: FirstNet’s Bratcher on costs & benefits of public safety broadband

FirstNet CTO Jeff Bratcher addresses the costs, benefits and updates on the national public safety broadband network in development


An independent authority within the U.S. Department of Commerce, FirstNet was formed in 2012 to develop, build and operate a nationwide public safety broadband network for first responders. To help local and state public safety departments and agencies save lives, and perform their jobs more safely and efficiently, FirstNet has been established to enable and deliver advanced communication and collaboration technologies.

FirstNet Chief Technology and Operations Officer Jeff Bratcher discussed the benefits and potential barriers that municipalities face when subscribing to FirstNet, below. In March 2017, FirstNet partnered with AT&T through a 25-year contract to deploy the nationwide public safety broadband network.

How has Firstnet’s public/private partnership benefitted municipal governments subscribing to FirstNet?

Bratcher: If you’re like me, you’ve probably had a smartphone for years, but traditionally first responders have not been able to fully rely on this technology since their wireless service was treated the same as all other commercial users and did not have priority or preemption capabilities for their communications on commercial wireless networks. FirstNet is now making this possible by modernizing public safety communications. It is the only dedicated nationwide public safety broadband network built for first responders, and based on their communications needs, to help them respond to emergencies as quickly, efficiently and safely as possible.

FirstNet services are available today and just in the last year or so, more than 5,250 public safety agencies have subscribed. We are really pleased with the progress that has been made to deliver this network nationwide based upon the needs of our public safety practitioners.

The FirstNet network provides a secure, “always-on” mobile broadband connection for responders to ensure that their communications can get through, even when commercial networks are congested. This means that law enforcement, firefighters, paramedics and other public safety personnel can make use of smartphones and other technology in more meaningful, lifesaving ways than ever before.

Are there additional costs outside of subscriber fees, devices and potential operations training for municipal governments to consider (such as additional employee staffing to budget for)?

Bratcher: Traditionally, public safety entities have had to pay for the infrastructure cost for their radio networks. But with FirstNet, there is no cost to the state or localities to deploy or maintain the network, as this is being handled by AT&T through a public-private partnership with my organization, the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet Authority) -- an independent federal agency within the U.S. Department of Commerce.

With FirstNet a reality today in all 50 states, five territories and the District of Columbia, state and local public safety agencies now have the option to subscribe to FirstNet. Public safety agencies and state and local officials can learn more about FirstNet products and services at FirstNet.com.

Some may be concerned FirstNet will cost more than existing data/voice/text plans. How can agencies get support in pricing out plans to find out what the cost impact will be to their organizations?

Bratcher: FirstNet Authority understands the unique needs of first responders, and the FirstNet network is best positioned to deliver the coverage, value and experience they expect at a highly competitive and compelling price point.

For agencies looking to subscribe, FirstNet is available on procurement vehicles at the state level or through NPPgov.com. FirstNet-eligible subscribers can access custom FirstNet pricing through these established agreements without signing a new or separate contract.

Also, individual first responders can sign up for FirstNet by visiting one of the thousands of AT&T retail stores nationwide. All of public safety can learn more about FirstNet products and services and reach a dedicated FirstNet customer service representative via the FirstNet website.

Has FirstNet Authority staff consulted with government officials beyond public safety in other departments, such as IT or finance?

Bratcher: Advocacy for public safety is at the heart of what we do here at the FirstNet Authority. Since our inception in 2012, we have had a strong team of public safety advocates and subject matter experts out in the field, meeting with first responders and local, state and federal government officials across the nation. Through engagement with public safety, we were able to plan for the nationwide FirstNet network that truly reflects the communications needs and requirements of the first responder community.

Working with our network contractor, AT&T, we developed individualized state plans that reflect the public safety priorities of each state, territory and the District of Columbia for the FirstNet network. We were pleased to have all 56 states and territories say ‘yes’ to FirstNet in their jurisdictions, which opened the door for public safety agencies to sign up for FirstNet services.

Today, the FirstNet Authority advocacy team continues to work with public safety officials across the nation to gather input on broadband-related needs and drive innovative public safety technologies, discuss how the network can best be used in emergency operations and ensure public safety’s voice and needs are continually represented in the FirstNet network buildout and evolution over the next 20 years. Agencies interested in engaging with us as we evolve the network can find a regional FirstNet Authority contact on the FirstNet website.

What are the barriers that may prevent cities from taking advantage of FirstNet?

Bratcher: The FirstNet Authority has contracted with AT&T, an industry leader, to build, deploy, maintain and evolve FirstNet -- a new nationwide network purpose-built just for first responders. The FirstNet solution has made tremendous progress in the last year. The network is now live and we are continuously expanding its footprint. In the last year, AT&T has deployed more than 50,000 square miles of additional LTE coverage for first responders using FirstNet’s dedicated spectrum that public safety asked Congress to set aside for their network.

A dedicated FirstNet core infrastructure has been built and launched that separates and protects public safety traffic from the commercial traffic. This infrastructure also provides public safety with capabilities they’ve never had on mobile broadband before, like preemption, which enables an “always on” connection and end-to-end encryption for a highly secure network for public safety. And on top of this, there are a number of approved devices and mobile applications developed to run on public safety’s dedicated network to help them with their lifesaving mission.

Educating public safety and local officials on what FirstNet is and how it can help their communities continues to be important. The FirstNet Authority will continue to engage with local agencies and city officials as we evolve the network to help them understand the value of FirstNet in assisting public safety as they save lives and protect our communities.

Is there one specific example of a municipality benefiting from FirstNet that stands out to you the most?

Bratcher: There are many examples of public safety agencies leading with FirstNet, but with the increase in wildfires in recent years, the Stockton, California, Fire Department stands out as an example of FirstNet in action. In 2017, the department’s firefighters were fighting the Napa Valley and Sonoma wildfires when their portable radios were damaged and stopped working.

Stockton Fire Chief Erik Newman worked with FirstNet to set up deployable network assets and distribute handheld devices to aid in the response. The experience of communicating on the FirstNet network was so memorable that several firefighters approached Chief Newman afterward to discuss how to integrate the technology into their day-to-day operations.

Since then, the department has adopted FirstNet -- a move that ensured interoperable communications with nearby jurisdictions and cost savings of more than $350,000. Recently, Chief Newman said, “With FirstNet, we were able to bring everyone in to one system. If you don’t have the communication piece to talk to your neighbor or talk to your county reps or talk to people that are going to come in and help your jurisdiction, the recovery process and going through the incident is not going to work. It’s going to be a struggle. So, we’re all in with FirstNet.”

We’re proud to support the Stockton Fire Department and all public safety agencies across the country.

How can cities get more information about the FirstNet hackathons?

Bratcher: There are several ways to stay “in the know” about FirstNet’s efforts, such as upcoming hackathons and other events. You can follow the FirstNet Authority on any of our social platforms—Twitter (@firstnetgov), Facebook (@firstnetgov), Instagram (@firstnetgov) or LinkedIn. You can also visit our website (www.firstnet.gov) or our network contractor’s site (www.firstnet.com) for the latest news and events.

Review and download the 10 Ways FirstNet helps public safety agencies keep communities safe:

TenWaysFirstNetHelps 161003 Web-FINAL by Ed Praetorian on Scribd

Derek is a freelance writer, columnist and blogger. He is passionate about technology, and works with public sector customers on digital transformation programs.