Keynote Address of FirstNet Chairman Ginn at PSCR

Topics/Subtopics: 
June 11, 2013

Keynote address of Sam Ginn
First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) Board Chairman

at the

Public Safety Communications Research Program Conference
Westminster, Colorado
June 4, 2013

(Transcript with edits for clarity)

Thank you so much and Jeff, thank you. First thing I’d like to say is these [PSCR] guys are great partners with us at FirstNet. And I don’t know if you recognized all of them before and the important work they do. But one of the very important things they do is all the work on the standards process on behalf of public safety. And if they don’t do their jobs, the manufacturers don’t produce the gear that solves our problems. So, you guys are very important to our project and we thank you for all you do.

The other person I’d like to recognize is Larry Strickling [NTIA]. He’s a great partner. We’ve worked jointly with NTIA on this project.  He’s just supported us in every way possible. So Larry, thank you for all you’ve done for us.

There was a guy named James Stockdale. I don’t know if you remember him. He was running for vice president. And do you remember what he said? “Who am I, and why am I here?” Well I’m going to wrestle with those questions for a moment. Well, why am I here? I got a call from the Secretary of Commerce, who said I’d like for you to be chairman of FirstNet. So I did a bit of investigating and I went and saw a friend, and he said to me, “Hey Sam, you don’t want to do that. You’re 76 years old. You should be taking cruises, you should be visiting your grandchildren, and you’ve got to know, public safety — they’re a rowdy bunch. Government rules and regulations will just drive you crazy. Then there are those who run Washington. And the technical challenges of this network are beyond the capability of anybody to perform. So I suggest you don’t do that.”

And I thought about it and my response to that was, “Look, with the passing of this legislation, this is the most important development in telecommunications in over 30 years. The only thing that rivals this law was when the FCC allocated the cellular licenses. Nothing since then has been as important as the creation of FirstNet.”

Secondly, I think we all know when you lay down 1 to 25 MB and you put that on Main Street across the country, that the innovators in public safety will take over and they will retool public safety in ways you never imagine. Matter of fact, my prediction today is that a decade from now you will not recognize how public safety operates. Let me ask you to think back to a point in time when you bought your first cell phone. Could you have predicted at that point in time the app structure that’s on your smartphone today? My answer to that is, “I couldn’t, and I don’t think you could either.” So if you can visualize that, I think you can conclude that once we make this capability available, it’s going to revolutionize public safety in ways that we never imagined. I don’t think we can predict exactly how, any more than we could have predicted the apps on your cell phone, but my prediction is it will happen. And when it happens, it will help public safety be more effective and it will lower costs.

So as I thought about my situation. I called the Secretary back. I said I’ve got a reasonable career in telecom. I’ve built networks around the world, and if I can be helpful I want to be. So I signed up and I became chairman of FirstNet.

Now, who am I? Well you heard a little bit of my bio there. I was told a long time ago that the thing you don’t want to do is talk about yourself in a speech like this. But I think there are a couple of incidents in my life that relate to where I’ve ended up. So I’d like to share those with you.

When I was a freshman in college I went to my counselor and I said, “Here’s my schedule.” And he said, “Well you have to sign up for ROTC.” I said, “Well where’s that?” And he said, “It’s about a mile down the road.” So I go a mile down the road, walk in and there are people milling around everywhere. And I went over and got in the shortest line which was for the signal corps. And that changed my life. You can see I didn’t do a lot of career planning, but it changed my life.

The second thing that I think is important in all of this, is that later on in my career, in 1984, there was the Los Angeles Olympics. And I had the opportunity to put together a team of engineers and marketers and go down to Los Angeles. We put cell sites around all the venue sites. We were interested in whether or not people would use wireless communications, how they would use it and, in essence, was it a niche business or what is really going to be a really interesting business. And we experienced in some ways, what you would expect. Guys would say, “Martha, here I am in the coliseum in Los Angeles — no wires — and I’m talking to you.” And I remember a Japanese businessman was sitting behind me at the coliseum and I said, “Would you like to call your office in Tokyo?” And he said, “It won’t work.” And so I said, “Give me the number,” and I dialed and his office answered. And he began to yell, “Miracle, miracle, miracle!” Now, you know that not that long ago people viewed a wireless phone as a miracle. But what was really important was that the technicians around those venue sites kept coming over to us.

Incidentally, we had those Motorola bricks — do you remember those? But we had those Motorola bricks and those technicians would come over to us and say, “Can I borrow that? I need to track down some parts, or I’ve got to schedule a meeting.” So we watched that and as the word spread, almost all of our bricks went out to technicians. And so when we got back to San Francisco, we said, “We think we have a business here.”

So that led to the creation of this company called AirTouch, which is just a bit of history now. But it was a pretty interesting exercise because we built about 20 systems across the U.S. Then the international market opened up. We built systems in Germany and Italy, Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Romania, Japan and Korea and India. So we built systems all around the world. And some of those people who participated in those projects sit on the [FirstNet] Board today. So what I want to share with you is that we have been able to recruit an incredible amount of technical talent to help us through this very complicated engineering process.

And just let me just say, the way I feel about this. This is the largest, most complex telecommunications project in the history of the world. Period. When we complete this system, it’s going to be larger than Verizon, AT&T or any of the major carriers. It’s going to have wider coverage. It’s going to have capabilities that wireless carriers currently don’t even entertain. So I don’t want to minimize this — the technical issues here, but they are enormous.

I want to make a couple of other points today. We need input from our customers. We need to understand your issues. While we have been mandated to put in an LTE network, how we design that network has got to be based on what you tell us you need.  And so we’re going to go about that. Matter of fact, we’re having regional meetings around the country now. I attended the most recent one in San Francisco. It was a really, really exciting time for me. It pointed out to me the diversity that exists in this country.

As maybe you heard me mention on the Board call just an hour or so ago, [I was] sitting there listening to the questions proposed by the states and a woman from Hawaii says, “Have you thought about how you’re going to cover the water between the islands?” Well, no.

And a guy from Alaska said,  “Well, I heard this presentation where you’re thinking about putting cell sites on trucks and driving them to a catastrophe. But eight months a year our roads are closed in some areas.” Oh, I didn’t understand that.

And from Idaho the question was, “The federal government controls 85 percent [of the land] in our state. Is the federal government going to be cooperative as we try to implement this system?” Well, I don’t know. We haven’t come to terms with that yet.

So you come out of these meetings understanding that we’re going to have lots of discussions with all of you. We’re going to take what you give us and pour it back into the design of the network. That will happen constantly over time. And by the way, that’s not going to change. So that’s just the way the process works.

Now there are a couple of issues that I just want to hit straight on here. The first one is, are you guys going to engineer this thing with input of public safety? There seems to be some point of view out there in some circles that you produced a 400-page document. You’ve engineered the network without listening to us. Just let me tell you, that’s against every principle I’ve ever worked with. You have to start with understanding your customer needs before you can engineer the solution.

And I just want you to understand that. It’s critical to the process. If we don’t meet your needs, you don’t have to buy our service. Period. If we don’t meet your needs, we fail. And so I just wanted to make that clear.

The other point I want to make, is you know, the descriptions in the law are quite complex. And we’re going to go through a period where we basically define the core, and we define the radio access networks, but in the end the situation we want to be in, is a situation where we establish the core in a way that will maintain a nationwide network. Let me explain what I mean by that. Certain functions have to be available in the core. Interoperability needs to be at the core. A security system for the country needs to be at the core. A hardening standard for the country needs to be in the core. An app engine that’s going to revolutionize your operation needs to be in the core. Now, beyond that, a principle exists that says, okay, we’ll engineer on a nationwide basis, but we want local control. What does that mean? Well, let me tell you initially what I think that means. That means that every state should control its network. It ought to be able to monitor the performance of the network. It ought to be able to designate the coverage areas and where an operating center should be, and whether the operating center is covered 24/7 or only during a crisis. It ought to be able to decide who gets on that network and it ought to decide the priority use of it.

So where do we need to get to here?  We have a big job of designing this core, understanding what’s in it. Let me just back up and give you an example. It’s pretty clear that this network is going to be a public-private partnership. That means we’re going to enlist the carriers to be partners with us. That means we’re going to enlist telephone companies, utilities, state networks, federal networks, satellite companies. All will be a part of this solution.

And if you just think about it, you say okay, as an engineer, how am I going to make all that work? Give me a matrix where all those work together. You begin to understand the complexity of the network that the engineering guys [are facing]. Maybe they’ll talk to you about that.

But, so, in summary, what you want to create here is a situation where you and the states run the network. Rewind the core to a certain place. We’ll provide those. And as a result of that, you get basically a data-centric network that allows you to do a lot of things.

I want to conclude with a couple of internal objectives we have at FirstNet. We’ve been given $7 billion with some conditions and 20 MHz of spectrum to construct this network. Now there’s a lot of debate at least in the literature as to whether $7 billion is enough. And if you look at the asset value of AT&T, it’s $50 billion and Verizon about the same thing. So if you say, “Well if this is going to be the equivalent of AT&T’s network, and they spent $50 billion, how in the world can you do it for $7 billion?” And that’s a comparison you can make. On the other hand, we’ve got ways we think we can essentially minimize the costs to bring this network up — leveraging economies of scale, existing assets and the value of the spectrum. The first one is scale. Now scale is something that public safety has never had before because you have these disparate systems all over the country. But when you buy a million of something, the unit costs goes down. And I think we’re going to see that very early on; you’ll see once the RFIs are issued. So scale is going to matter a lot.

The second thing that is going to matter is in our initial studies, we think this system is going to have about 35,000 cell sites. If we with our partners — states, the federal government,  and the carriers — we can essentially minimize, or put it this way, if we can utilize their towers, we can dramatically reduce the cost of this network. So I don’t know whether $7 billion is enough. Of course the other thing we have is the residual spectrum and we know that’s extremely valuable and it’s incumbent upon us to make sure the value of that spectrum gets plowed back into our ability to construct and engineer and maintain this network. So on the whole question I would say, jury’s out. We’re not giving up. We have a commitment to build this network with what the federal government has given us, and we’re going to do our best. It’s not intuitively obvious that we can or can’t do it. But we view it as a commitment and we’re going to go for it. The other thing is, the legislation says that we are committed to break this network even on a continual basis and we intend to do that.

So in summary just let me say that it’s a great project. It’s a great opportunity for all of us to work together to get this thing up and running. I kind of like that idea of the soup that comes out of the kitchen with different point of the view get expressed and certainly we have heard that in our meetings with states and localities. But I just want you to know, we want to be your partners. We can only get this network up and running if you are our partners. And we hope that you will join with us and make this thing happen.