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Feds Look to States for Next Generation 9-1-1 Systems

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WASHINGTON — As the federal government continues to promote FirstNet, the Federal Communications Commission-reserved bandwidth intended to allow first responders like police and fire departments to communicate better with one another, officials in the nation’s capital want states to spearhead the next generation of 9-1-1 emergency call systems and public safety broadband.

Communications interoperability among first responders and public safety agencies has been a federal goal ever since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks exposed major interagency response challenges.

“You folks are in a great position to coordinate those efforts at the state level,” Laurie Flaherty, U.S. Department of Transportation andNational Highway Traffic Safety Administration national 9-1-1 program coordinator, told a gathering at the National Association of State Technology Directors annual conference Monday afternoon in the nation’s capital.

Next Generation 911 represents the effort to overhaul the nation’s 9-1-1 systems to receive data and calls from text and video messaging technologies.

Communities need to update their infrastructure so 4G and 5G networks, 9-1-1 and first responders are on the same page, Flaherty said. That way, for instance, a witness to a crime could send a digital photograph to 9-1-1 dispatchers, who could relay it to police officers on the streets.

And state governments, especially those where chief information officers have 9-1-1 systems management responsibilities, are poised to facilitate the transition, Flaherty said.

Harder to sell to state officials is FirstNet, four years in development and estimated to cost somewhere between $12 billion and $47 billion, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The network will bring interoperability beyond push-to-talk across all 50 states, said Jacque Miller-Waring, FirstNet Region VI consultation lead, during the NASTD conference’s “Emergency! 911.gov, FirstNet and Your Critical IT Role” session.

In 2012, FirstNet was granted its own bandwidth for $7 billion vowing to leverage the best practices of already developed networks.

“We anticipate this will be a long-term partnership and implementation that will grow just like any other network we’ve seen in the last 10 years,” Miller-Waring said.

But FirstNet has been the subject of major criticism over the years—an expensive investment that may already be obsoleteThe Atlanticrecently reported.

The interagency interoperability FirstNet promises already exists in major U.S. municipalities like New York City, according to The Atlantic, with technology allowing agencies to plug into each other’s systems. Departments are even able to carve out the bandwidth they need on cellular networks, preferenced ahead of residents, during emergencies on the scale of Hurricane Katrina.

FirstNet is in the process of identifying coverage gaps in places like rural towns and targeting hospitals and emergency medical services, Miller-Waring said. Once FirstNet awards a contract to an operator on Nov. 1, it will issue state plans on network deployment that governors have 90 days to decide on.

Governors can either opt-in to FirstNet’s Radio Access Network for free or submit an alternative RAN plan within 180 days—opting out. Grant programs exist in an opt-out scenario, but states must maintain and upgrade the networks for years.

State officials worry the chosen operator won’t be incentivized to meet coverage and service standards, and cities will still have the option whether or not to subscribe to FirstNet—which some speculate is still decades away from launching.

“We need to . . . ensure we’re providing a competitive product,” Miller-Waring said. “We need to make it compelling to subscribers.”

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