Sen. Wicker: FirstNet’s Emergency Coverage in Rural Areas is a ‘Major Concern’

By Alex Grubbs | June 23, 2016 | 2:42 PM EDT


Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS). (Wikipedia)

( – Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-MS) said Tuesday that the First Responder Network Authority's (FirstNet) efforts to extend emergency internet coverage to rural areas was a “major concern.”

“I appreciate FirstNet’s commitment to providing rural communities with the same service as larger, urban cities, but rural and remote coverage remains a major concern of mine,” Wicker said at an oversight hearing in Washington regarding the public safety broadband network that will be used to ensure first responder efficiency.

“The cost of coverage and maintenance of the network in these hard-to-reach areas needs to be addressed on the front end of deployment,” he noted.

FirstNet was created when The Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 was signed into law in February 2012. According to its website, “the law gives FirstNet the mission to build, operate and maintain the first high-speed, nationwide wireless broadband network dedicated to public safety.”

This law required the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to grant FirstNet 20 Mhz of radio spectrum.

Congress allocated $7 billion in startup funding to establish the network across the 50 states and six territories of the United States by 2018.

All states and territories except Mississippi have received initial consultation and data collection assistance from FirstNet, and about 25 states have already had meetings with the government agency.

Congress’s intention was to “address communication failures that slowed recovery efforts during major national emergencies, including the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina,” Wicker pointed out.

But he said he was concerned that FirstNet would face difficulties in implementing emergency first responder coverage in rural areas, telling FirstNet CEO Michael Poth that the $7 billion in startup funding will not be enough to sustain FirstNet, and that user fees will have be implemented.

The subcommittee chairman asked Poth how he intends to overcome that challenge.

“We should and will maximize the value of that [$7 billion] for public safety. We expect that the commercial partners will come [up] with the x amount of capital on their side to start the nationwide buildout of the broadband network,” Poth responded.

As an independent authority, FirstNet will oversee the network which several different commercial vendors will build and use. These vendors, which range from infrastructure to telecommunications companies, have shown an interest in subcontracting or partnering with other potential vendors to set up the emergency response system.

Each entity within FirstNet’s system is required to pay a network user fee, as well as other fees. FirstNet must also reinvest money back into the system to sustain it.

“To address concerns about costs out in the rural areas,” Poth added that FirstNet’s commercial partners would sell “the excess spectrum on the commercial side that will keep the fees and revenues coming into FirstNet  for not only the sustainability, but also [to] keep the costs down for public safety users, whether they’re in rural, urban or suburban areas.”

However, Jeffrey McLeod, director of the Homeland Security and Public Safety Division for National Governors Association, explained how user fees might prove to be an obstacle to FirstNet.

“The financial models that underpin the network’s long-term sustainability requires a robust and diverse user base. If fees are too high, the public safety users do not utilize the network. The financial success of the network could be in jeopardy. States remain concerned that this could lead to user fees that exceed current outlays on public safety communications technology,” McLeod said.

Andrew Katsaros, principal assistant inspector general for audit and evaluation for the Department of Commerce Office of Inspector General, explained other potential risks facing FirstNet.

According to Katsaros’ written testimony, FirstNet’s schedule for awarding partnerships is aggressive and faces geographic challenges, especially in rural areas. In addition, FirstNet must also coordinate effectively with multiple government stakeholders and help develop individual state plans.

However, with increasing numbers of employees, more financial control is needed to ensure that the project does not run out of administrative funds.

“Our office believes if these ... areas of short- and long-term risk are not addressed between now and the launch in approximately mid-year 2018, the implementation may not succeed,” Katsaros told the subcommittee.

FirstNet will award commercial partnerships in November for the network’s planned deployment in 2018.

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