The National Public Safety Broadband Network: A Federal Program Deserving State Attention

By Jim McPherson, NAAG Executive Director

Jim McPherson, Executive Director

For years, the first responder community has dreamed of a network, whether it is countywide, statewide, or nationwide, that could deliver public safety and emergency voice and data services as fast and efficiently as the latest “smart phone.” That dream began to take shape when Congress passed and the president signed into law in February the “Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012” [P.L. #112-96]. Part of the Act provides for a nationwide public safety broadband network (NPSBN) managed by an independent agency called “First Responder Network Authority,” also known as FirstNet, and the potential for $7 billion in federal funding. But as with many federal programs which contain language requiring a newly-created federal agency to consult and coordinate with state and local authorities, there is potential here for both tremendous benefit and significant costs to states. The following article is a quick outline of FirstNet intended to simply highlight some early challenges for attorneys general offices to consider.

The initial challenge for FirstNet is its organization and structure. FirstNet is tasked by the Act to establish and operate the NPSBN through a board of directors in consultation and partnership with state and local public safety authorities. The FirstNet board was named in August 2012 and surprisingly does not include any current state officials. There are representatives from local law enforcement associations, a former state chief information officer, and a mayor but no representatives of governors, attorneys general, or statewide public safety officials.

Another challenge is funding. Although the Act language includes $7 billion in funding, initially only $2 billion is available to establish the network, far less than what will be required. The additional $5 billion is to come from the proceeds of a voluntary incentive auction slated for 2014. Such a mechanism is novel and no one is certain of the outcome or timetable for this auction. Many have argued that the $7 billion price tag is woefully inadequate, and the potential exists for states to be left with substantial costs.

In addition to those considerations, there is a parallel universe in play here and no one is quite certain how the two will connect. During previous discussions about the Act and prior to its passage, several states wanted to proceed with developing state broadband networks which would interconnect with NPSBN when it came online. The Federal Communications Commission granted waivers and made grants to some states totaling $382 million to develop statewide networks. However, there is concern that these networks will not be compatible with NPSBN when it is finally developed.

Finally is the question of timing. Conservative estimates are that the planning and proposal period could last well into 2016 or beyond. If correct, NPSBN will not be completed for over a decade. That long period will add even more challenges to the interoperability issues.

So what does all this mean for attorneys general? First, if you count the governor or legislature as a client, questions concerning NPSBN will start coming your way. For those who have public safety organizations responsible to your Attorney General’s Office, you are directly involved in this program. And finally, there is significant money in play for public-private partnerships between states and telecommunications firms to build-out the NPSBN in the states. Representatives for those firms will soon be knocking on doors of attorneys general offices.

An excellent source for more information can be found at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, a not-for-profit, non-partisan, policy research institute which has published a thorough report on the Act and all its intricacies. That report can be found at http://www.potomacinstitute.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1294:new-report-qwhat-should-firstnet-do-firstq&catid=42:studies.

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