Background on FirstNet
The Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 (Pub. L. No. 112-96, Title VI, 126 Stat. 256 (codified at 47 U.S.C. § 1401 et seq.)) (the “Act”) created and authorized FirstNet to take all actions necessary to ensure the building, deployment, and operation of an interoperable, nationwide public safety broadband network (NPSBN) based on single, national network architecture. The Act meets a long-standing and critical national infrastructure need, for a single, nationwide network that is intended, for the first time, to allow law enforcement personnel, fire fighters, emergency medical service professionals, and other public safety entities to effectively communicate with each other across agencies and jurisdictions.
What is NEPA?
The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) (42 U.S.C. §§ 4321-4347) (NEPA) requires Federal agencies to undertake an assessment of environmental effects of their proposed actions prior to making a final decision and implementing the action. NEPA requirements apply to any federal project, decision, or action that may have a significant impact on the quality of the human environment. NEPA also established the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), which issued regulations implementing the procedural provisions of NEPA (see 40 CFR Parts 1500-1508). Among other considerations, CEQ regulations at 40 CFR 1508.28 recommend the use of tiering from a “broader environmental impact statement (such as a national program or policy statements) with subsequent narrower statements or environmental analysis (such as regional or basin wide statements or ultimately site-specific statements) incorporating by reference the general discussions and concentrating solely on the issues specific to the statement subsequently prepared.”
The proposed action would encompass the design, construction, and operation of the NPSBN by FirstNet or a partner organization. Under the Act, the network must have several characteristics, including security, resiliency, backwards compatibility with existing commercial networks, integration with PSAPs or their equivalents, substantial rural coverage, it must be built to open, non-proprietary, commercially available standards, and it must use existing infrastructure to the maximum extent economically desirable. FirstNet is responsible for the construction of a core network, comprised of all standard Evolved Packet Core elements under the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) standards (including the Serving and Packet Data Network Gateways, Mobility Management Entity, and the Policy and Charging Rules Function), device services, location services, billing functions, and all other network elements and functions other than the Radio Access Network (RAN). The RAN, which FirstNet is responsible for in opt-in states, would consist of all cell site equipment, antennas, and backhaul equipment required to enable wireless communications with devices using the public safety broadband spectrum. Finally, the Act states that FirstNet must continue to maintain and improve the NPSBN to account for new and evolving technologies.
FirstNet may enter into Spectrum Manager Lease Agreements (SMLAs) with states that opt-out of the FirstNet RAN plan. The range of methods that would be employed by states to connect their RAN to the FirstNet core network are expected to include methods described and analyzed in the various alternatives listed below.
Alternatives being Considered
FirstNet will evaluate a range of reasonable alternatives. FirstNet is considering the following implementation alternatives:
- Deployable Technologies Only Alternative: Procure, deploy, and maintain a nationwide fleet of mobile communications systems to provide temporary coverage in areas not covered by existing, usable infrastructure, as there would be no collocation of equipment or new construction. Generally, these units would be deployed at times of an incident to the affected area. These mobile communication units would be temporarily installed and may use existing satellite, microwave, or radio systems for backhaul.
- No Action Alternative: Under the No Action Alternative, the NPSBN would not be constructed; there would be no nationwide, coordinated system dedicated to public safety interoperable communications. The existing multiplicity of communications networks would remain in place, as would the current, known limitations and problems of existing communication networks during times of emergency or disaster. This alternative would require an act of Congress to revise the Act, which currently requires the NPSBN.
- Mixed Technologies Alternative: Construct a long term evolution (LTE) NPSBN using a combination of the following methods: collocation of the network equipment on existing towers, poles, and structures, some of which would require structural hardening or reinforcement to improve disaster resistance and resiliency; construction of new communication towers, poles, and associated structures to include generators, equipment sheds, fencing, and concrete pads; collocation on existing fiber facilities, including lighting dark fiber and installation of new fiber on existing poles and in existing conduit; installation of new conduit and fiber using trenching (including vibratory plowing) or directional boring (including horizontal directional drilling); deployment of satellite phones and other portable satellite technology; installation of microwave facilities for cell-site backhaul communication; and, the utilization of deployable technologies to support the NPSBN. Deployable technologies encompass a range of items, generally characterized as the following:
- Cell on Wheels (COW): a cellular base station on a trailer with an expandable antenna mast and usually a microwave or satellite link back to the main controller
- Cell on Light Truck (COLT): a cellular base station on a light truck platform with an expandable antenna mast and usually a microwave or satellite link back to the main controller
- System on Wheels (SOW): a full base station and controller on a trailer/truck/big rig/etc. A SOW is a fully self-contained cellular system that can provide an island system with no need for satellite/microwave link back; applicability of this type of deployable technology may be limited if there is no internet connectivity
- Deployable Aerial Communications Architecture: Aerial vehicles, which would be deployed at high altitudes and are capable of providing wide-area coverage, although with relatively low capacity/throughput