FirstNet: A Billion-Dollar Boondoggle?

FirstNet -- the network that was supposed to connect first responders across the US -- may just turn out to be a $47 billion boondoggle that never actually goes live.

This is the conclusion in an article by Stephen Brill in the September issue of The Atlantic. Brill has several articles about the fallout from 9/11 a decade and a half on that are all worth the read. (See Why LTE Isn't a No-Brainer for Utilities – Yet.)

The FirstNet first-responder network idea was originally tabled to address the idea that police and firefighters could not connect with each others' radios on 9/11. Brill describes this as something of an "urban myth."

"Problems with fire-department communications mostly had to do with the inability of fire commanders to communicate with their troops because repeater devices installed in the Trade Center to enable two-way radios to penetrate the building's thick walls and work from its high floors failed in the intense fire," he writes.

In other words, nothing would have worked.

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In which case, Brill argues that the interoperability problem has been solved, as far as it can be, in the 15 years since 9/11. To whit, why would police and fire departments spend more on FirstNet when they can already buy smartphones that connect them to their colleagues?

"It is difficult to imagine jurisdictions like New York, which have long since solved interoperability, deciding to buy into a new, expensive FirstNet," Brill notes.

Nonetheless, AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) and Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) are expected to be among the companies to bid on operating the new network. It will operate in the 700MHz D-Band. The idea of developing a 4G first-responder network at 700MHz was first suggested in 2006. (See What Will Play in the 700 MHz Band?)

In the end, Brill describes FirstNet as an "over-hyped problem" that has been overtaken by advances in technology. What do you think, readers?

— Dan Jones, Mobile Editor, Light Reading

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kq4ym 9/9/2016 | 11:13:57 AM
Re: Smart? Really? I've seen our local emergency response units move to radios that are univeral in communication among the various agencies. It's been pretty expensive to shift to all the new technology but the radio manufacturers are happy. The problem still remains dependent on emergency power and secure locations for equipment though.
DHagar 8/29/2016 | 5:53:41 PM
Re: Boondoggle? @DanJones, thanks - I will read.  Sounds like our government dollars "not at work" again!  We continue to develop agencies without value.
DanJones 8/29/2016 | 5:35:18 PM
Re: Boondoggle? Like I said, this whole issue of The Atlantic is worth the read, he doesn't laser focus on FirstNet, and there's a lot of other incredible spending related to 9/11.
DHagar 8/26/2016 | 4:40:53 PM
Re: Boondoggle? @Dan, yes - definitely a redundancy without value = boondoggle!  Great info.

Sad fact, however, is taxpayers are the losers.
DanJones 8/26/2016 | 4:20:43 PM
Re: The longer it takes... Ouch!
bdcst 8/26/2016 | 4:18:56 PM
Re: The longer it takes... Right, like the smart meter mesh network that can't definitively determine if the power is really out at my house when the whole area goes dark since that takes down the whole mesh!  If I'm home I always beat the network to the punch when I call in an outage.
DanJones 8/26/2016 | 4:00:32 PM
Re: The longer it takes... There's some local systems that mesh network for better failover, seems impractical for a national system though.
bdcst 8/26/2016 | 2:44:28 PM
The longer it takes... Well, the longer these things take to build out, the quicker the whole ball of wax becomes obsolete.  It might be more reliable to use in orbit smart relay satellite systems for linking inter agency and inter geographic emergency communications on the fly and using ground stations as local relay points for better building penetration similar to the way XM/Sirius radio works in its one way system.

Radio relays built into buildings need to be designed to survive fire and heat and have sufficient battery power to operate autonomously.

Since LTE band D will require tower to tower backhaul and eventually fiber or internet connectivity, I see it as being almost as vulnerable as conventional cellular service during a crisis.  The fewer the network nodes the better.
DanJones 8/26/2016 | 2:23:54 PM
Re: Our Taxes at Work? To be fair though, funding this network would be a drop in the bucket compared to the spend on the F35 fighter, which is being built to fight who knows what? Certainly not Isis!
DanJones 8/26/2016 | 2:10:43 PM
Re: Smart? Really? Well we're 10 years in and the process has barely begun so there's that too
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