A public-private partnership aiming to build a nationwide broadband network for first responders is under way, but lawmakers are still concerned about the network’s future cybersecurity and reliability.
The network is designed to allow law enforcement, emergency medical teams and other disaster response groups to communicate more reliably with each other than they currently can on existing networks. Ideally, first responders across the nation could share images, videos and other updates about disasters in real time using commercially available devices like smartphones, according to the First Responder Network Authority, or FirstNet.
FirstNet, a Commerce Department authority, awarded a multi-billion dollar contract to AT&T this spring to set up the backbone of that network. States have until mid-December to make final decisions on whether to opt-in to the network or not. Arkansas, Iowa, Kentucky, Virginia and Wyoming are the first to opt in.
Here are a few other updates since the award in March:
- The Government Accountability Office concluded FirstNet faces serious challenges in guaranteeing the network's security and reliability. In a report published this week, GAO enumerated concerns from FirstNet collaborators, including an inability to cover rural areas, certain buildings and underground areas, and that it has not assessed its own staffing needs.
- FirstNet hasn’t sufficiently connected with tribal organizations in some states—and some tribal representatives weren’t aware of FirstNet or its mission at all, according to the GAO report. In response, the team has set up a tribal working group, FirstNet Chief Executive Michael Poth told members of a Senate Commerce subcommittee Thursday.
- Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., asked officials about their cybersecurity plans. “Specific devices for the FirstNet network need to be certified by AT&T for cyber,” Chris Sambar, AT&T’s senior vice president, testified. AT&T is building a security operations center specifically for this network, which will be totally segregated from the company’s core commercial network, he said.
- AT&T has a new team dedicated exclusively to FirstNet, which Sambar expects to grow to several hundred employees by the end of 2017, he said.