Mississippi’s broadband safety network runs into interruptions

McClatchy Washington BureauJuly 21, 2013 

— Mississippi’s attempt to become the first state to build a high-tech, potentially life-saving broadband network that can beam videos and data to police, firefighters and medical teams during emergencies has come to a halt, stalled by bureaucratic and financial hurdles.

With little notice, the state’s Wireless Communications Commission voted last week to freeze construction on the $56 million project, already nearly 80 percent complete, because of an impasse with the federal government and a state budget shortfall.

Police chiefs across the state are beginning to mobilize a grassroots campaign to lobby legislators to try to save it, and firefighters are likely to join.

“We’re still trying to see what we can do to salvage this,” said Vicki Helfrich, the wireless commission’s executive officer.

The broadband predicament comes as the wireless commission has warned that the Mississippi Legislature has appropriated only enough funds to operate a separate new state public safety radio network until next January.

The problems surrounding the broadband network are more complicated.

Then-Gov. Haley Barbour ballyhooed the new system in 2011 as a technology leap that “can save lives” by speeding data and video delivery to 90 hospitals, 340 ambulances and up to 9,900 Mississippi public safety workers. Federal grant money for the state broadband project and six others across the country, however, was awarded before the creation last year of a new federal board overseen by the Commerce Department assigned to develop a nationwide broadband network.

The new First Responder Network Authority, known as FirstNet, faces the task of doling out $7 billion for a system connecting virtually every public safety agency in the country, from those in tiny towns to metropolises, and to allot each region space on the federally controlled wireless spectrum.

Shortly after its creation, the board suspended funding for all seven jurisdictions, including Mississippi, which had gotten public safety grants from the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Agency until each negotiated a lease for spectrum space.

Terms of the proposed leases have been described as sticky, involving tangled issues over state versus federal control over the spectrum. Despite two extensions of the negotiations deadline, the latest expired July 12, with only a Los Angeles regional body having reached a lease agreement with FirstNet.

“Negotiations are still ongoing,” Helfrich said. “We cannot operate the system without spectrum.”

A FirstNet official, who lacked authorization to speak for the record, said that the board is expected to extend the negotiations deadline into August.

Meanwhile, the Mississippi state wireless commission is faced with a big shortfall in its operating budget. The state legislature allotted only $6 million of the $14.6 million that the commission requested for fiscal 2014. Helfrich said the funds appropriated are all dedicated to the land mobile radio network that ties together 22 state, nine federal and several hundred local public safety agencies, and that’s still at least $4 million short of what’s needed for the year.

As it stands now, she said, none of the $4.6 million needed to operate the new broadband network is available.

Including a grant for a Mississippi health system for delivering high-speed medical data to help emergency responders make faster diagnoses of injury victims, the total federal grant to the state exceeded $70 million, with Mississippi putting up $13.3 million in matching funds.

Helfrich said that $45 million overall has been obligated so far for the broadband system whose future is in limbo.

The microwave-based broadband network is being built by Motorola Solutions, Inc., using many of the towers that Motorola installed in also building the land-mobile radio network.

A spokesman for Gov. Phil Bryant had no immediate comment.

Leaders of the police and fire chiefs associations aren’t waiting for direction.

Scott Berry, president of the Mississippi Association of Fire Chiefs, said he would raise the issue at an upcoming board meeting.

“We will just have to speak with our legislators and see if we can help push this through,” he said.

“Are we going to be beating the drum?” asked Ken Winter, executive director of the Mississippi Association of Police Chiefs. “Absolutely. What we’re hearing from the legislature (is) that they think the locals need to invest more in it. The bottom line: small towns and cities across the state simply do not have the resources to invest in the front end like that.”

Besides, he said he tells legislators, “This is the state of Mississippi. The money you’re deciding where it goes, where do you think it comes from? It comes from cities and towns across the state.”

Email: ggordon@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @greggordon2

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