Mobile DataFirstNet, the nation’s planned mobile broadband public safety network offers significant opportunities for rural wireless network operators, according to Steven K. Berry, president and CEO of the Competitive Carriers Association.

“My suggestion to carriers is ‘this is an opportunity you have to be part of,’” said Berry in a recent interview with Telecompetitor.

After being debated for more than a decade, the idea of creating a nationwide mobile broadband network to support emergency responders finally appears poised to become reality now that the AWS-3 auction has generated considerable funding for the network.

“I’m pleased that there seems to be renewed focus and interest in real progress,” said Berry.

The FirstNet Public Safety Network
The FirstNet public safety network has been allotted a block of spectrum in the coveted 700 MHz band for which it will have priority usage. But according to Berry “in rural America there will be few times that [emergency responders will] need all of that spectrum,” which means rural wireless operators could use the spectrum when it is not needed by emergency personnel. And with technologies such as LTE-A giving carriers the ability to aggregate disparate spectrum bands, Berry argues that small wireless carriers could gain the ability to provide ultra-high-speed mobile broadband by combining their own spectrum holdings with public safety spectrum.

Berry noted that there are fewer than five million emergency responders nationwide and that the public safety network will be designed to handle 250,000 to 350,000 users in an individual area.

FirstNet is designed to cover the entire country and while construction details have not yet been determined, Berry believes decision makers will realize that they will need to work with rural carriers to ensure that the network reaches everywhere. The public safety network has strict performance requirements designed to ensure that the radio access network (RAN), to be owned by FirstNet, is “hardened” – i.e., that it supports highly reliable service. Nevertheless Berry believes the network will be based on the type of RAN equipment used by carriers in order to gain the necessary scope and scale.

He also noted that FirstNet representatives “got really excited” when they learned about CCA’s Data Access Hub, which gives participating carriers the ability to connect with one another.

Moving Forward
Berry also believes that working with FirstNet could help rural network operators get the latest handsets in a more timely fashion. As with the small carriers, the number of handsets that FirstNet needs will be a small fraction of what the large national carriers require. As a result, the large national carriers tend to be manufacturers’ top priority. This is a risk FirstNet recognizes, Berry said – and how decision makers plan to address it could be good news for small carriers.

“FirstNet is going to try to be ahead of the curve,” said Berry. “They want to be relevant and . . . to be able to lease their spectrum or trade or barter with anyone that wants to provide FirstNet with broadband-capable [devices] to meet their needs.”

While many details have yet to be resolved, Berry believes FirstNet’s direction will become clearer within the next month or two.

“They’ve done a lot of very positive things very quickly over the last year,” he said.