Wednesday, May 16, 2012

APCO Broadband Summit and the FirstNet Board Business Case Alignment

I got back from the APCO Broadband Summit yesterday after attending the two day conference. It was the typical roadshow of where things are in the process but the main message delivered is nothing is going to happen until the FirstNet Board is created. One thing did grasp my attention though that was the panel that hosted the commercial carriers, i.e. AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, T-Mobile and USCellular. 
The carriers basically laid out a nice message of “we have all the know-hows to doing this deployment”, but one thing sticks out. The business case for a commercial carrier is about making money off subscribers and services. Nothing wrong with that, I actually support it, but the Public Safety Broadband network is not about revenue creation; at least on the face of it. It’s more about setting up a private protected broadband network using LTE to insure there is never a lost emergency call, or command response, during a major incident. With such a gap in the business alignment why would the carriers be trying so hard to get the soon to be established FirstNet Board (who will oversee the PSBN deployment) to agree to use their networks instead. In essence the carriers want the spectrum for their own use...that being to make money off subscribers. What really surprises me in that some of the influential members of the APCO community support this thought process. I understand the fact that the carriers probably know better than anybody else to deploy a commercial broadband service for subscribers, but this is not a commercial broadband network (actually they know how to make money off the network not actually build it. Other integrators actually build them usually under a premium of pass throughs in cost). 
What if the commercial carriers just waited? As part of the FCC’s requirements there exist the need to establish broadband access to the rural and far reaching urban areas so that everyone can have access to broadband technologies. If I were a carrier why would I fight to deploy the costly infrastructure (due to hardening requirements it may be as much as 3 times the cost of the typical commercial broadband deployment) when I could just wait and then perform a much more efficient Managed Services contract with the State and/or FirstNet to have all the broadband subscribers in the rural areas access through the FirstNet network and piped back to the commercial carrier networks? To me this would be a lot more cost efficient for the carriers themselves. But one further thought remains...that being the survival of some of the carriers themselves. 
With the consolidation of the commercial carriers, and the lack of spectrum, some of those carriers do not have the right spectrum to sustain their business for the long-haul. case in point; T-Mobile. Its a known fact that AT&T and Verizon have the adjoining bands of spectrum that surround the D-Block for Public Safety. Being that they are the largest commercial carriers in the US means that the OEMs will manufacture phones in to meet the requirements in those bands, which means other bands will not get the attention needed for the long-term, thus comes end-of-life on certain product lines in the phone areas. This causes a snow-balling affect whereas the infrastructure follows. If you aren’t in that curve of technical development then eventually you are doomed to fail if you don’t adapt. Thus someone like T-Mobile needs to be able to build markets that the OEMs will manufacture too...but the two largest are not playing in those bands so the fight for survival through spectrum allocations begins. This is why I believe you have the carriers clamoring to win Public Safety Broadband developments. They want the spectrum. 

The spectrum belongs to the Federal Government and should be sublet to the States for deployment, execution and operations. It has to be State centralized because have you ever tried to run maintenance of 30,000 cell towers within the localization of one State from Washington DC? It’s not easy and requires 3-4 hour response times which means it has to happen locally. The FirstNet Board should act as a corporate headquarter element then create the design template, establish the procurement procedures, outline the governance model and then allow the States to build to those mandates. A typical State has roughly 30-40 State Entities. Most of these entities have some form of Public Safety and Emergency responsibilities. Those State, and entwined Federal Agencies, are the real clients for the Public Safety Broadband Network. Most of the press today only talks about the Police, Fire and EMS portions, but they will be only a small piece (yet critical piece) to the overall client base for this network. As an example: if another hurricane like Katrina hits and you don’t have power utilities as part of the Statewide Emergency response scenario then they are doomed to their reliance on the commercial carriers for communications for all their SMART and electrical grid operations. The SMART Grid to-date has been deployed using 3G technologies. Those same Utility players have now been given notice that 3G is end-of-life and that they need to move to LTE, but you only have two choices for LTE service if you don't have your own spectrum; commercial carriers or the FirstNet. I shouldn’t have to explain what happens if the Utilities are forced to utilize commercial hardening standards. 
As was the case for the automotive industry; is it the duty of the Federal Government to help the commercial business case of the carriers? Why can’t we just focus on the design, deployment and operations of a Public Safety Broadband Network? Leave the business of commercial broadband business to the carriers and let the FirstNet build their own private architecture by not trying to shoehorn a business case of the commercial carriers into this mold. Lets just build it to the requirements of the States and the Public Safety entities that reside within them; then let the commercial carriers compete for the non-prioritized rural and urban subscribers who need broadband access later. After all, tying ourselves to the commercial carriers does not resolve the case of the Earthquake in DC, or the 9-11 disaster. Commercial cellphones failed in those instances why would this be any different? 

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