FirstNet opens technical HQ in Boulder

BOULDER – A new federal initiative to create a nationwide wireless broadband network for police and firefighters is opening its technical headquarters in Boulder this spring.

The First Responders Network Authority, or FirstNet, has leased 28,000 square feet of space at 3122 Sterling Circle, and will hire 100 employees to begin designing the ground-breaking system dedicated to public safety.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the nation has wrestled with how to ensure first responders can communicate during public emergencies.

Last September, as floods ravaged Boulder, Larimer and Weld counties, the public turned en masse to mobile devices to document events and check on loved ones. As the surge of cell signals hit the airwaves, some first responders saw their own communication networks bog down.

Bill Malone – director of ADCOM 911, the nonprofit that handles dispatch services for 14 public-safety agencies in Adams County – said such a surge in mobile traffic can have the same effect on first responders in all types of situations, from last summer’s Black Forest Fire near Colorado Springs to active shooter situations and major sporting events.

“It just wipes out the system for awhile,´ said Malone, whose organization is building its own local network that will interoperate with FirstNet’s national system. “It’s not uncommon. It happens very frequently, really.”

Congress established FirstNet in 2012 to remedy such situations. FirstNet, an independent authority within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, is based in northern Virginia – but it is in Boulder that engineers and other technical and support staff will work to design, test and set specifications for a nationwide network.

This area was chosen in part because of its proximity to the Public Safety Communications Research lab, a joint effort of the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the NTIA located in Boulder. The PSCR already has been focused on research, development and testing to improve first-responder communications.

“We’re very excited to move into Boulder,´ said TJ Kennedy, deputy general manager of FirstNet. “We’re tapping the technical expertise that exists, not just at PSCR but also in the area.”

Congress has so far allocated $7 billion for buildout of the FirstNet network, for which Kennedy there is no set timeline.

Operations in Boulder alone will take a year or so to ramp up completely. FirstNet is a one-man band locally at this point, with PSCR operations and technical manager Jeff Bratcher serving as acting deputy chief technology officer of FirstNet. FirstNet is in the process of hiring a CTO who will head the Boulder operations.

In the meantime, Bratcher is doing everything from overseeing the hiring of federal and contract employees to overseeing buildout of the Sterling Circle space, not to mention working on strategy for FirstNet.

“You name it, I’m doing it,´ said Bratcher, who expects to have the first employees onboard in Boulder by the end of March. “It’s kind of a startup environment within the federal government, so lots of activity.”

Plenty of groundwork lies ahead. But once the FirstNet network is built, public safety agencies will be able to buy service on the network just as they might from a commercial carrier. So when duty calls, their own wireless traffic won’t be pushed to the side by the general public’s text messages, selfies and Facebook posts.

Interoperability also is a major aspect of the network to ensure that agencies can easily communicate with each other. As things stand now, agencies use dozens of different kinds of systems. The Boulder County Sheriff’s Office, for example, uses different types of radios than do neighboring counties such as Larimer and Jefferson, making communication across jurisdictions difficult when needed.

The network will rely on public-private partnerships, providing opportunities for Colorado telecom companies. FirstNet has put out requests for information from companies seeking out what current assets they might have, such as cell towers in remote locations, that would be useful to the FirstNet system. FirstNet also could leverage assets and infrastructure of public agencies looking to use the network.

“It’s not greenfield building everything,” Kennedy said. “It’s certainly going to leverage a lot of what’s out there.”

Jeff Kohler, cofounder and chief developer of Englewood-based JAB Wireless Inc., the parent company of fixed wireless Internet service provider Skybeam, said companies such as his, Broomfield-based Level 3 Communications and Boulder-based Zayo Group, to name a few, all could help with aspects of the new FirstNet network.

Skybeam, for one, has 350 towers in rural Colorado where FirstNet could lease space to co-locate its equipment or use the Skybeam equipment as a signal relay to another point where FirstNet has its own service.

Since any equipment used on the new network would have to be tested by FirstNet before it could be deployed, Kohler said local companies have an advantage by being located near FirstNet’s technical headquarters. FirstNet, in turn, has a bustling telecom industry in this area from which to draw expertise.

“I think there’s always something to be said for proximity,” Kohler said.

Malone said proximity to the PSCR has been invaluable to ADCOM 911.

ADCOM began building its own dedicated mobile network in 2011 with a federal Broadband Technology Opportunity Program grant through the NTIA. The network was about 85 percent complete when FirstNet was created, and all seven BTOP programs around the nation were put on hold until FirstNet could oversee them and make sure they would meet the new standards and interoperate with the new network.

ADCOM in December signed a spectrum-management lease agreement that allows it to resume buildout of its network. Malone believes the $6 million network will be completed by December of this year.

“We will be one of the first local networks that are up under FirstNet,” Malone said. “We expect to actually be the first.”

Malone said PSCR officials have been on ADCOM’s location multiple times to look over equipment and consult on the project.

“NIST is a very important element because they work very closely with manufacturers and vendors and with public safety to test all types of communication devices,” Malone said. “NIST being in Boulder was very convenient for us.”

ADCOM is a special case of sorts, given that it already was building its network when FirstNet was created.

As part of the legislation that created FirstNet, states have the right to decide whether to have FirstNet build out the network within their borders or whether they will build out the networks according to their own plans. Any new networks must be approved by FirstNet and demonstrate interoperability.

Brian Shepherd, broadband program manager at the Colorado Governor’s Office of Information Technology, said the state still is consulting with FirstNet and working out where coverage is needed and what resources in the state can be leveraged.

Just having the technical headquarters in Boulder, though, should help Colorado maximize the possibilities.

Wellington Webb, former mayor of Denver, is on the FirstNet board of directors, and spoke up for the Boulder area and its resources when FirstNet staff was searching for a location for the technical headquarters.

“We had a lot of great cities and competition,” Webb said. “It was kind of a natural because the area has a lot of individuals qualified and competent in the high-tech area.”

Joshua Lindenstein can be reached at 303-630-1943 or Follow him on Twitter at @JoshLindenstein.

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