FirstNet and its mission to provide first responders with a fast, reliable nationwide network recently found an experienced leader to help in advancing that goal. In April, FirstNet hired Bill D’Agostino as its general manager. D’Agostino comes to FirstNet with more than three decades of telecom experience, having held executive positions at Verizon Wireless and Sprint PCS. Ahead of his keynote address Oct. 9 at the Wireless Infrastructure Show, Wireless Week got D’Agostino’s answers on some questions about the challenges that lie ahead for FirstNet and what’s being done to ensure the program’s success.

Wireless Week: What specific issues for first responders will FirstNet address?

Bill D’Agostino: FirstNet will deliver high-speed data communications to the nation’s first responders. We will ensure interoperability, security, priority access (including pre-emption), along with access to unique applications and information important to public safety. We will deliver these capabilities on the worldwide standard LTE platform. FirstNet will launch with data only services, integrated with LMR. Over time, when the technology and public safety are ready, we plan to add non-mission critical voice and eventually mission critical voice.

For too long our nation’s first responders have been hampered by a patchwork quilt of voice communications systems, making it difficult to communicate during emergencies. We saw that on 9/11. For data communications, public safety has to rely on commercial wireless networks that were never designed for the kind of reliability police, firefighters and paramedics need and that do not provide priority access for public safety during emergencies. These issues put our first responders and our communities at risk.  

After 9/11, the public safety community spent years on Capitol Hill explaining the severity of these issues. Congress responded to their impassioned plea and made good on the last outstanding recommendation of the 9/11 Commission by creating FirstNet. In 2012, Congress passed legislation establishing FirstNet and charged it with building and overseeing a nationwide interoperable wireless broadband network dedicated to public safety. FirstNet will deliver on this commitment to public safety.

WW: Going truly nationwide with this network must be extremely challenging. Where has FirstNet succeeded in this vision so far and what challenges lie ahead?

D’Agostino: FirstNet recently celebrated its one year anniversary, and in this short period of time we’ve made big strides in this historic task of building a nationwide broadband network. We started from scratch – no employees, no business plan, and no administrative processes. During this start-up phase, members of the Board took on operational roles, and we’ve relied on employees from NTIA and consultants to help us while we work to build our organization.  

We are now transitioning to a new phase. I was hired by the FirstNet Board in April as General Manager, and I’ve been hard at work building the senior management team.  Hiring the brightest and best talent is a top priority of mine over the next year. 

We’ve also been hard at work laying the groundwork for building this network. In July, FirstNet released 10 requests for information (RFIs) as part of our extensive market research to determine the most appropriate network design approach. Once we analyze the responses to the RFIs, we will develop and issue Requests for Proposal (RFPs). 

The Board on August 13 approved a $194 million budget for FY ’14 in support of management’s plans and priorities. The budget sets the course for us to continue building the foundational elements of the organization and network infrastructure. We will also identify the ultimate structure for public/private partnerships that are essential for FirstNet to achieve and sustain our mission.  The budget covers six key initiatives that establish fundamentals for FirstNet as an organization: building the organization’s foundation, network partnerships, mandates, early movers, portable hotspots and devices.

We face a myriad of challenges. Let me highlight a few. First we must continue to earn the trust of public safety. We need to expand our outreach efforts with the states, territories, local governments and tribes so that we begin to understand the specific and unique requirements of each state with regard to building state plans. These plans will ultimately be delivered to each governor as the basis for joining the FirstNet system. Additionally, we will be working to capture the key learnings from our recent RFI’s. We will use these learnings to refine requirements in upcoming RFP’s. Finally, another of our challenges will be building public/private partnerships and unlocking the inherent value in any excess capacity on our network.

WW: How much of the project could possibly be funded by the incentive auctions next year?

D’Agostino: The law establishing FirstNet says that it will be funded by up to $7 billion from spectrum auction proceeds. 

WW: How dependent is FirstNet on proceeds from the incentive auctions?

D’Agostino: We know that $7 billion is not enough to build a nationwide network from scratch. That’s why FirstNet will develop a network partnership strategy to cost-effectively accelerate the FirstNet buildout. FirstNet plans to add its equipment, its brand of hardening and public-safety-grade functionality to create a new network dedicated to public safety. In 2014, FirstNet plans to explore potential partnerships and how to leverage existing systems to cost-effectively accelerate the nationwide FirstNet network. Every option is on the table.

WW: Why has it taken this long to realize an interoperable network for first responders? 

D’Agostino: Past attempts to improve interoperability were fragmented, yielding disparate proprietary and customized networks. FirstNet will be a single, nationwide platform which will help to ensure interoperability. FirstNet is based on an entirely new approach – LTE technology, nationwide governance, clear “beachfront property” spectrum, public-private partnerships and participation by every level of government. 

WW: Do you think the scale of recent disasters like Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy have added urgency to the effort?

D’Agostino: Absolutely. Every time there is a major national disaster, it focuses attention on the urgent need for our first responders to have the best tools possible to help save lives. These storms also highlighted the need for a resilient and reliable network architecture.  We are moving as expeditiously as we can to get this network built, but it’s important that we get it right.  That’s why we’ll leave no stone unturned in the effort to gather input from states and local communities as well as the vendor community on the best way to build this network. As an example we recently visited Oklahoma and had a very valuable exchange of information with the public safety leaders who were directly engaged in the series of recent tornados in their state. 

WW: What entities will need to be part of the process in order to get this deployment done right? Will major wireless carriers be involved?

D’Agostino: There is no doubt that all the traditional entities that support equipment, hardware, software, network design, construction, implementation and operation of wireless networks will be engaged in one form or another with the FirstNet build. Our unique challenges around funding and public/private partnerships will likely create opportunities for creative ways of working with us. I would say it this way – all the major wireless carriers will have the opportunity to be involved. Some may choose to play, some may not. I also believe there will be many non- traditional players that will see the value in FirstNet’s excess capacity. These companies, large and small, will help create a market that will sustain our nationwide network.