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Barnett: Hurricane Warnings for the New Public Safety Communications Network

However, one of the major concepts for the new NPSBN may transgress those two principles, resulting in a public safety communications system that is less reliable, not more. A commercial-only infrastructure plan floated by FirstNet and the federal agency that oversees FirstNet, the National Telecommunications and Information Agency, does not really incorporate the views of public safety users, governors and state CIOs. Without doubt, commercial carriers have an important role to play, especially in controlling costs, ensuring smooth operations and providing unparalleled expertise, but the intentions for FirstNet were never to create another commercial network.

Superstorm Sandy starkly illustrates the basic difference between what is needed for commercial and public safety networks. Commercial cellphone towers, fiber-optic lines and backup power are not designed to withstand all hazards all the time; if they were, our cellphone service fees would be much more expensive. But public safety communications need to be available especially when storms or earthquakes have devastated other communications systems. How do we justify the additional cost to harden FirstNet?

FirstNet will be expensive already. Experts estimate that costs will total much more than the $7 billion Congress has allocated. But contrast that with the cost of post-Sandy or post-Katrina recovery (and not forgetting the loss of lives). The governor of New York estimates that post-Sandy reconstruction for his state alone is expected to cost $40 billion to $50 billion. It would make sense to invest funds to harden the network to prevent loss of lives and property next time, and there will be a next time. The large expense underscores the necessity of forming partnerships to make joint use of existing commercial infrastructure. As I testified, we must be open to innovative solutions that draw commercial investment and public infrastructure into the network, making it both affordable and robust.

One size will not fit all, and FirstNet has to remain open to listening to the needs of the folks who will use and pay for the services of this new network: governors, state CIOs and public safety officials. The one size that does not fit at all is missing the lesson from Superstorm Sandy.

Jamie Barnett is a retired Navy rear admiral, former chief of the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau of the FCC, and currently a partner at Venable LLP and a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy.

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