Ten years ago Congress enacted a law creating the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet Authority), an independent agency in the federal government that revealed problems with communications systems used by America’s first responders, said Jacque Waring, national tribal government liaison for FirstNet.
“There were advocates from across the federal, state, local and tribal level that petitioned Congress to establish a single nationwide broadband network. That agency was created in 2012 and we began our efforts to establish a public-private partnership to deliver this nationwide network across the country,” she said.
Waring said coverage lacked on tribal lands and rural areas across the United States. In response, she said, AT&T provided a plan the federal government used to build a nationwide network for first responders.
“Since that partnership was established just over five years ago, we’ve expanded network coverage significantly both in tribal lands as well as 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 ensure that the investment the federal government made into this was with a partner who had existing infrastructure,” Waring said.
“Building out a nationwide network with just the funds we had just under $8 billion were not going to 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, per a news release.
There are 23 federally recognized tribes in New Mexico, mostly in northern, central, and western New Mexico, according to the New Mexico Secretary of State’s website.
“We have many tribal nations that subscribe to the network and that continue to work with us on a regular basis,” Waring said.
“We really want to make sure that we ensure their going to have a quality network and quality solution and the network expansion has been completed before they subscribe to services,” she said.
There two tribes based in southern New Mexico. The Fort Sill Apache Tribe based in Luna County and the Mescalero Apache Tribe based in Otero County, per the Secretary of State’s website.
Waring said FirstNet met with the Mescalero Apache Nation before the COVID-19though no agreement was reached.
“The way that we communicate with them is respectful of that government-to-government relationship and we established that policy and a dedicated team to be able to interact and engage with Indian nations across the country,” she said.
“AT&T works really hard with us in partnership to identify those areas where we can expand the network,” Waring said.
Tom Randall, New Mexico senior public safety advisor for FirstNet, said partnerships with tribal nations utilizes internet connectivity provided by FirstNet and AT&T.
“They can then collaborate with other agencies, whether its State Police, local agencies or the federal partners and being able to not only communicate not only within their own jurisdictions but also with those partners on mutual aid response,” he said.
Randall said future expansion would eliminate isolations or communications islands where agencies cannot talk with other agencies.
“I think that’s an important factor that we are really trying to focus on in New Mexico. Especially with some of these tribal lands being so isolated,” he said.
John Garcia, chief of Laguna Pueblo’s Fire and Rescue Department, said his agency relies exclusively on wireless communications for residents of neighboring villages needing fire and emergency fire services.
Located west of Albuquerque, the Pueblo of Laguna covers four counties and six villages, according to the National Park Service.
Garcia said communication sometimes gets lost when emergency crews travel through mountains or forests.
“Once service is gone, we have to wait for connectivity to hook up again. That’s a valuable five or ten minutes that we’re losing,” said Garcia on FirstNet’s website.
U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM) welcomed FirstNet’s participation with Native Americans.
He said first responders need critical and potentially lifesaving information while working in real, natural environments.
“I remain committed to working with local partners, stakeholders, and first responders to help ensure that our networks keep New Mexico communities safe,” he said.