FirstNet to unveil new Boulder testing lab for nationwide first-responders network

BOULDER – FirstNet, the federal organization tasked with creating a nationwide broadband network for police and firefighters, today will hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony to mark the opening of its new Innovation and Testing Lab in Boulder.

The lab has been some two-and-a-half years in the making in Boulder since FirstNet, formally the First Responders Network Authority, established its technical headquarters in a 28,000-square-foot space at 3122 Sterling Circle.

The ribbon-cutting will be held at 1:30 p.m. at the Sterling Circle site, where the lab will occupy roughly 6,000 square feet.

In essence, the new $1.5 million lab will be used for testing equipment that will be used on the broadband network dedicated solely to first responders to make sure it meets requirements and integrates together seamlessly to help ensure smooth communications between different agencies. But that role is much bigger than it sounds.

FirstNet officials in January sent out a request for proposals for the buildout of the nationwide network, and those proposals were received in May and are being evaluated. The award is a 25-year contract with a ceiling of $100 billion that could see a number of companies get a piece of the pie along with a prime awardee.

Established by Congress in 2012, FirstNet is an independent authority within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. The Boulder technology headquarters as a whole is geared toward designing, testing and setting specifications for the network.

FirstNet chief technology officer Jeff Bratcher has been in Boulder since the organization leased the space in Boulder in early 2014. He said in a recent interview that the focus since then has been on getting staff onboard, developing the RFP for the network buildout, and planning for construction of the lab.

The Boulder facility employs about 40 people now, including chief technology staff, legal staff, project management personnel and IT support staff in addition to engineers. In addition to equipment testing, Bratcher said the lab will also provide future research and development and applications-development opportunities. Overall, FirstNet’s space on Sterling Circle has room for about 80 people in its office space.

“We’re at the phase now where we need to have the award completed and understand the future requirements, and then build out (staff) from there.”

A big part of the reason that FirstNet picked Boulder for its technical headquarters was the proximity to the Public Safety Communications Research lab, a joint effort of the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the NTIA in Boulder.

NIST and PSCR have a $300 million pool of funding from which they’ll award funding over the next several years to companies developing innovative public safety broadband features and applications related to everything from data analytics to location-based services. Those new innovations then would be funneled toward the new proving ground at FirstNet’s site in Boulder.

“The efforts they will be funding will feed into our nationwide public safety broadband efforts in the future,” Bratcher said.

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