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Q&A: Building FirstNet’s ‘App Store’ for First Responders

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The team working to build a public safety broadband network is approaching a major deadline at the end of the month, when proposals from parties interested in building that work are due.

As the public-private partnership known as FirstNet prepares to evaluate those proposals, Nextgov spoke with president TJ Kennedy about what’s coming up over the next year. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

NG: The FirstNet proposal deadline is May 31. What are your next steps?

TK: From the proposal, we’ll go into evaluation. We currently plan for evaluation to end about Nov. 1, and then we would award in the end of this calendar year. After the award, we’ll be very focused on working with our future partner, or partners, to come together on the draft state plans.

We expect draft state plans to be rolling out around springtime, with the goal of getting a state plan in the governors’ hands by the summer of 2017. Those state plans drive the opt-in, opt-out decision for the Radio Access Network portion of the network. As soon as those state decisions are made, we then move out with the deployment of that network. That’s likely to be in the fall of 2017, and then we start deploying.

NG: The proposal deadline was recently extended. Was that because FirstNet wasn’t getting enough qualified applicants? Will deployment happen on time?

TK: As with any proposal, you get requests for extensions. They’re evaluated by a contracting officer and they make that decision.

We’re a huge country. If you look at the state of Texas, they have 254 counties, and the state of Delaware has three counties. So, how long it may take [depends] ... they both start on the same day, but the sheer geography is very, very different across the country. It’s really important for us to be honest about that so there’s not a false expectation.

NG: Is there room for startups and citizen developers to create apps that could be used on the network?

TK: FirstNet’s goal is to really focus on the standards and security and make sure we have a software development kit, things like that. I actually think you’re going to see firefighters up in a firehouse at 2 o’clock in the morning that are coming up with an amazing application that solves a problem that they have, or paramedics or EMTs that are solving a problem for the emergency medical community.

I do believe that it’s really going to be the police officers and firefighters and EMTs that are coming up with an innovation, whether they’re building it themselves.

NG: So, what’s the eventual goal? To create an iTunes-like marketplace for first responders?

TK: The easiest way to think about the goal would be a public safety app store.

By having a nationwide public safety broadband network, we’re going to allow an ecosystem where a big city fire department can create an app, that maybe they’re really focused on, but they can also share that or sell that or allow other departments that are much smaller to take advantage of that.

Vice versa, I think you’re going to see individual firefighters or paramedics come up with great ideas other departments are going to buy. It’s going to create this really active public safety ecosystem.

NG: And once a firefighter creates an app, what do they do with it?

TK: Our Boulder[-based] technology group … is working on some challenges that will be coming out to drive innovation in public safety, and drive the first wave of core apps. But we also plan to work with our partners to make sure we have a series of APIs and a series of standards that will allow the community to build for that. It’s coming. We’re not there yet, but it’s coming.

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