Local law enforcement talks big picture with national public safety broadband plan

Law enforcement and emergency response representatives explored the future of public safety at Wednesday’s 911 Advisory Board meeting at the Kenai Peninsula Borough Emergency Response Center.

The board, which includes representatives from the peninsula’s major safety agencies, addressed the logistics of Alaska joining the national wireless data network initiated by a 2010 National Broadband Plan.

In 2012, Congress created the First Responder Network Authority, or FirstNet, with the mission “to build, operate and maintain the first high-speed, nationwide wireless broadband network dedicated to public safety,” according to FirstNet’s website. Approximately $7 billion and a portion of the national broadband capacity were allocated to FirstNet to start the project.

Kenai Fire Chief Jeff Tucker talked about what the plan will do for law enforcement and emergency response agencies, as well as the steps needed for it to be implemented. Having a broadband network reserved for public safety agencies will make responding to emergencies more efficient and cut down on network clutter, he said.

“If you’re at a major event, the first thing that goes down is the cell phone,” Tucker said. “For public safety responders, we lose all our ability to utilize our cell phones or mobile data computers.”

Alaska was number 50 on FirstNet’s list of places to conduct consultations about bringing the broadband network to the area, and implementation of the plan will be unique due to the geographic challenges in the state, Tucker said. In order to establish the networks, FirstNet will partner with existing area providers — large providers like AT&T and Verizon will participate on a national level — though none of those are set in stone, Tucker said.

“The idea is not for FirstNet to build their own standalone public safety broadband system, but to partner with local telecom providers, to work with them and put infrastructure up on their sides,” Tucker said.

Essentially, FirstNet will own a certain “chunk” of a broadband spectrum, Tucker said. In order to pay for the broadband, FirstNet will lease its extra network capacity to other companies when it’s not being used by public safety personnel, so regular users will be allowed to access it until there is an emergency.

“I was aware of the project, but I wasn’t aware of how they were going to try to pull it off, by leasing out their extra broadband to private companies, and that’s hopefully going to be their main revenue stream for the future,” said Mike Nussbaum, dispatch supervisor for the Kenai Police Department.

During an emergency, Tucker said general users will be pushed to a different part of the spectrum, possibly a different tower, so that public safety personnel will have exclusive use of that data to communicate.

The next step will be the formation of a plan to be submitted to Gov. Bill Walker, who will have 90 days to opt in or out, Tucker said.

“Either way, it’s going to be built, it’s just a matter of whether the state’s going to partner with them (FirstNet) or not,” Tucker said. “All indications are we’re going to work with FirstNet and have it go.”

The 911 Advisory Board will meet again on Nov. 18 at the Emergency Response Center in Soldotna.

Reach Megan Pacer at megan.pacer@peninsulaclarion.com.

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