Funding, Turf Issues Stall Mississippi’s Emergency Broadband

July 23, 2013

Mississippi’s attempt to create the nation’s first statewide emergency broadband network has come to a halt.

The state’s Wireless Communications Commission voted last week to freeze construction on the $56 million project, which is nearly 80 percent complete, The Sun Herald reported.

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

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

Police chiefs across the state are beginning a grass-roots lobbying campaign.

“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,” said Ken Winter, executive director of the Mississippi Association of Police Chiefs.

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.”

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.

The problems are complicated.

Some federal money won’t be released until a state leases a specific part of the broadband spectrum. Those talks are underway.

Terms of the proposed leases have been described as sticky, involving tangled issues over state versus federal control over the spectrum. Only last week, the new First Responder Network Authority, known as FirstNet, issued a formal request to major vendors for input on what technology parts of the new system should use. That leaves it unclear how well Mississippi’s system would interface with the national system.

Then there’s state money. The Legislature appropriated less than half the money the commission asked for – and the $6 million it got is all dedicated to a separate radio network linking 22 state, nine federal and several hundred local public safety agencies. That’s still at least $4 million short of what’s needed this year for the radio project, Helfrich said.

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 $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 Motorola installed in building the land-mobile radio network.

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