Ten years ago, Congress passed a law establishing the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet Authority), an independent agency in the federal government that exposed problems with communications systems used by America’s first responders, said Jacque Waring, National Tribal Government contact for FirstNet.
“There were advocates from all over the federal, state, local and tribal levels calling for Congress to create a single nationwide broadband network. That agency was established in 2012, and we have begun our efforts to establish a public-private partnership to offer this nationwide network across the country,” she said.
Waring said coverage was lacking in tribal and rural areas in the United States. In response, she said, AT&T has provided a plan that the federal government used to build a nationwide network for first responders.
“Since that partnership came into being a little over five years ago, we have significantly expanded network coverage, both in indigenous and rural areas of the country,” Waring said.
She said AT&T had the organization and facilities to build a communications network.
“This was part of the plan to get the federal government to invest in this with a partner that had existing infrastructure,” Waring said.
“Building out a nationwide network with just the money we had, just under $8 billion, wouldn’t be enough to build a nationwide network,” she said.
In New Mexico, FirstNet assisted the Navajo Nation with satellite cell phones on light trucks on the reservation during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a press release.
According to the New Mexico Secretary of State’s website, there are 23 federally recognized tribes in New Mexico, primarily in northern, central, and western New Mexico.
“We have many tribal countries that subscribe to the network and continue to work with us on a regular basis,” Waring said.
“We really want to make sure that we make sure they have a quality network and quality solution and that the network extension is complete before subscribing to services,” she said.
There are two tribes located in southern New Mexico. The Fort Sill Apache tribe based in Luna County and the Mescalero Apache tribe based in Otero County, according to the Secretary of State’s website.
Waring said FirstNet met with the Mescalero Apache Nation before the COVID-19, although no agreement was reached.
“The way we communicate with them is with respect for that government-government relationship and we have established that policy and a dedicated team to be able to communicate and interact with Indian countries across the country,” she said.
“AT&T is working very hard with us to identify areas where we can expand the network,” Waring said.
Tom Randall, senior public security adviser for FirstNet in New Mexico, said partnerships with tribal countries leverage Internet connectivity from FirstNet and AT&T.
“They can then work with other agencies, be it the state police, local agencies or the federal partners and be able to communicate not only within their own jurisdictions but also with those partners about mutual aid,” he said. .
Randall said future expansion would eliminate isolation or communication islands where agencies can’t talk to other agencies.
“I think that’s an important factor that we’re really trying to focus on in New Mexico. Especially because some of these tribal lands are so isolated,” he said.
John Garcia, chief of the fire and rescue department at Laguna Pueblo, said his agency relies solely on wireless communications for residents of neighboring villages who need fire and rescue services.
Located west of Albuquerque, the Pueblo of Laguna covers four counties and six villages, according to the National Park Service.
Garcia said communications are sometimes lost when emergency services travel through mountains or forests.
“Once the service is gone, we have to wait for the connection to be re-established. That’s a valuable five or ten minutes that we lose,” Garcia told FirstNet’s website.
US Senator Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM) welcomed FirstNet’s participation to Native Americans.
He said first responders need critical and potentially life-saving information while working in real, natural environments.
“I remain committed to working with local partners, stakeholders and first responders to ensure our networks keep New Mexico communities safe,” he said.