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NTIA Official Tells Public-Safety BTOP Winners to Wait for FirstNet (4/4/12)
By Sandra Wendelken
A National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) official this week asked public-safety Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grant awardees to hold off on their broadband network procurements and deployment plans.

During a conference call Tuesday, Larry Strickling, assistant secretary for communications and information and NTIA administrator, asked the BTOP awardees not to purchase any Long Term Evolution (LTE) equipment and not to deploy any LTE equipment that had been purchased until the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) board had time to make network architecture decisions, said Charles Robinson, director, business support services, city of Charlotte, N.C.

The Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 mandates that the 15-member FirstNet board be in place within 180 days of the bill being signed into law, which is Aug. 23. FirstNet is charged with establishing a public-safety advisory committee to assist the authority. FirstNet will obtain grants and make contracts, spending funds to advance public-safety communications. It will also oversee the building, deployment and operation of the network including promoting competition in the equipment market, including devices for public-safety communications and promoting integration with public-safety answering points (PSAPs) and ensuring rural coverage.

"Our focus now is on ensuring these much-needed investments remain in their communities and that the projects proceed in a manner that supports a single, nationwide interoperable public-safety broadband network," said an NTIA spokesperson. "We will work with our grantees to achieve this. We obviously want any jurisdiction working on a broadband public-safety network, regardless whether they are one of our grantees, to be prudent with investments they make before FirstNet develops its blueprint for the nationwide network's architecture. The objective is to avoid investments that must be replaced if they are incompatible with the nationwide network."

Charlotte planned to launch its public-safety LTE network in late June or early July before the Democratic National Convention scheduled for early September in Charlotte. Robinson was recently named the chair of the FCC-appointed Technical Advisory Board for First Responder Interoperability.

“We have asked for specific written direction from NTIA related to any new BTOP grant management guidelines they are implementing, but have yet to receive this,” said Robinson. “I’m reluctant to speculate on the impact of any proposed grant management guidelines until I have them officially.”

Strickling also said during the call that he plans to ask the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for a deadline extension for the public-safety BTOP grants because of NTIA’s requested buildout delay. Public-safety BTOP winners have a deadline of September 2013 to spend the money.

“What we’ve learned from NTIA over the last two days is 180 degrees different from what we knew last week,” Robinson said.

NTIA said its officials engage in ongoing stakeholder discussions regarding these issues with grantees and the public-safety community. "Our goal continues to be to ensure grant funds are used wisely and that the existing BTOP investments remain in these communities," NTIA said. "We want to allow these projects to progress while ensuring that their efforts support a single, nationwide interoperable public-safety broadband network. So, we are working with the grant recipients to identify areas that can be compatible until there is greater certainty regarding the path forward for FirstNet. The investments under way can inform FirstNet on its deployment strategies going forward."

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