It will have taken 17 years to give the nation’s first responders their own cell network to use in a time of crisis.
Florida joined with just hours to spare.
Last week, Gov. Rick Scott opted the state into FirstNet, a mobile broadband network built exclusively for public safety agencies.
It was created to address communication failures experienced by first responders during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Police, fire and others in New York City used different networks and technologies that didn’t mesh with each other, and also competed with civilians for bandwidth.
Florida was the second-to-last state to join, doing so late Thursday, the night the deadline to make a decision expired. California was the last state to join, also opting in that night. All 50 states and Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Washington, D.C., have now joined.
In an op-ed, Walton County Sheriff Michael Adkinson explained the advantages of the new FirstNet system, and the disadvantages of sharing a network with civilians.
"Right now, public safety shares the same commercial network that citizens use, and that network is neither secure nor available everywhere or every time we need it," wrote Adkinson, president of the Florida Sheriff’s Association.
"A remote location, storm damage, or a high level of use by the general public can leave ambulance drivers, firefighters and police officers without a connection."
The goal of FirstNet, set to come online in March, is to fix all that. It will be run by the First Responder Network Authority, a federal agency under the Commerce Department.
Currently, a panoply of local, state and federal agencies use their own networks and devices, making interagency communication difficult. Some agencies simply cannot talk to each other, even those that operate near each other.
Once FirstNet is rolled out, public safety agencies can switch to the new national network, allowing them to more easily share information.
The system is also supposed to improve communication among responders during disasters and large, densely populated events — times when cell networks used by civilians are prone to overload, rendering cellphones useless for communication.
FirstNet was born from the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, which dissolved in 2004. It took years and heavy lobbying by public safety groups before Congress finally chartered the First Responder Network Authority in 2012.
However, FirstNet has its critics. It will cost billions of dollars to build, has taken years to get off the ground and the agency’s operations have been critiqued by government inspectors along the way. Some critics believe that the system has taken so long to bring online that modern cell technology has already solved the problems FirstNet was supposed to address a decade ago.
In March 2017, the Commerce Department picked AT&T to build, operate and maintain the network. The federal government will pay $6.5 billion over the first five years of the contract.
FirstNet works like this: the government gave AT&T 20 megahertz of new airwaves, or spectrum, to host the new network. The extra spectrum adds capacity to AT&T’s wireless network, allowing more devices to connect.
Most days, public safety agencies won’t need that extra room. So AT&T’s regular customers will benefit.
But during high-stress situations, when chatter among responders is high and public safety agencies need to send and receive large amounts of data, they can elbow out everyone else using that 20 megahertz.
AT&T has also promised to improve cell service to rural areas of the country in order to make FirstNet an option for responders outside metropolitan areas.
Adkinson wrote that FirstNet will make cell service "more accessible and affordable to agencies from our population-dense cities to our most rural counties."
There’s more in it for AT&T than just expanding its service: It gets a lucrative government contract reportedly worth $100 billion over 25 years.
The next step is for local agencies to decide if they want to join FirstNet. The authority said those agencies that do switch over will end up paying less than they pay for their current service.
Contact Josh Solomon at [email protected] or (813) 909-4613. Follow @ByJoshSolomon.