September 11, 2001. Terrorists attack the United States. 2,996 people died. The economic damage was more than 250 billion dollars. The 9/11 Commission Report made 46 major recommendations in 8 categories. Virtually all the recommendations were implemented.
Except, perhaps, one.
On December 29, 2017, that is 5,953 days after the attacks, this recommendation finally was addressed:
Allocate more radio spectrum and improve connectivity for public safety communications, and encourage widespread adoption of newly developed standards for private-sector emergency preparedness—since the private sector controls 85 percent of the nation’s critical infrastructure.
On December 29, 2017, the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) became a reality in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and two United States Territories. FirstNet was created by Congress on February 22, 2012. Congress allocated 20-megahertz of radio spectrum for FirstNet’s use in creating a nationwide mobile wireless (cellular) network where first responders will have priority. Congress stated FirstNet must use long-term-evoluation (LTE), a worldwide standard, for the network. And, while many public safety responders work for governments, there are private sector first responders too, protecting critical infrastructure, who will have priority on the network. AT&T won a competitive contract to deploy the network, and promised priority on all its existing LTE spectrum, as well as the 20-megahertz assigned to FirstNet.
AT&T delivered on that promise on September 30, 2017. But the Governor of each State and Territory, and the Mayor of D.C., each had to decide whether to participate in this network. On December 28, 2017, California became the 50th state, and 53rd government (including D.C., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands) to decide to participate in FirstNet.
Thousands of Chiefs of fire-and-rescue, law enforcement, emergency medical services, and 9-1-1 centers advocated for FirstNet to happen. Hundreds of federal, state and local officials worked on the details, and hundreds of AT&T employees brought it to fruition on the carrier’s existing infrastructure.
The vision of the 9/11 Commission is, at long last, 5,953 days later, realized: a nationwide public safety communications network.
Still, there is much to be done.
New advances in technology and therefore terrorist, criminal and public safety capabilities are constantly occurring. Hacking, cybersecurity, new smart phones, the Internet of Things, body-worn video cameras, new applications, unmanned airborne vehicles, natural language processing (Siri, Alexa, Cortana) and artificial intelligence are just a few of those advances. Public safety agencies often lag in adopting these technologies to support their mission of keeping 320 million Americans safe.
While one of the last chapters of the 9/11 story is now closing, many new challenges and opportunities present themselves.
The contract for FirstNet has a 25 year life, starting March 30, 2017. There are 8,859 days remaining. Many challenges still remain to be completed: public safety agency adoption of FirstNet, an applications store filled with innovative apps, the Internet of Life-Saving Things, cybersecurity, network connectivity in remote areas and more.
Nevertheless, our nation’s first responders now, on December 29, 2017, finally have a nationwide wireless network with priority for their smart phones, mobile data computers, tablets and other devices.