The federal government is in the early stages of building a nationwide, hardened, wireless network expressly for use of first responders in emergencies and disasters. According to the ARRL Letter, the First Responder Network (FirstNet) is being developed by an independent authority within the U.S. Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which parallels the FCC for federal government spectrum users. The network will initially focus on providing data and video, with "mission-critical voice communications" at least a decade away.
According to Ralph Haller, N4RH, chairman of the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) and former amateur radio chief at the FCC, the full implementation of FirstNet "will likely be as significant as when public safety first began using radio." He also predicted that it will diminish ham radio's role as a backup for public safety systems because fewer of them will fail in emergencies and disasters. However, Haller said there should be an ongoing role for amateurs as "eyes and ears on the ground" during emergencies and particularly during the recover phase of disasters. He advised amateur radio emergency groups to speed up their adoption of digital modes and DATV (digital amateur television) and to continue working closely with public safety organizations. "Be sure," he said, that these organizations "never forget how valuable the amateurs are!"