Topeka Public safety agencies in Kansas will soon have unprecedented ability to communicate with one another during large events like wildfires, tornadoes and other natural disasters.
Gov. Sam Brownback on Tuesday signed letters officially opting the state into a federally funded service known as FirstNet, a broadband network for mobile devices that will enable first responder agencies to communicate seamlessly with one another.
"In the wake of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, as first responders heroically charged into the fallen buildings and rubble, they could not all communicate with one another," Brownback said during a Statehouse news conference. "This was one of the startling things in all the studies that came out after 9/11. They couldn't talk to each other."
In response, Congress passed legislation in 2012 authorizing the U.S. Department of Commerce to set up an independent authority to develop, build and operate a nationwide broadband network connecting first responders. States were then given the option of opting in to that system or developing their own networks.
Brownback's action Tuesday made Kansas the 14th state to opt in.
"FirstNet was created to ensure that our first responders never again face that kind of technology gap," Brownback said. "This is a response that has taken a long time."
"We were just talking about the Hutchinson fires," Brownback continued. "We had 400,000 acres burn this year at one time in different places, and we had firefighters from all over the state in there and lacked some of this ability to critically communicate."
Although Congress authorized about $7 billion in federal funds and set aside a large amount of telecommunications bandwidth to support the network, a large portion of the funding will come from telecom giant AT&T;, which plans to spend about $40 billion nationwide erecting towers.
AT&T; Kansas president Mike Scott called FirstNet a "game changer" for public safety in Kansas.
"It's what they've clamored for, it's what they need, and it's something they will put into good and very effective use," Scott said.
Scott said AT&T; will recoup its investment through monthly subscription fees that it charges public safety agencies that join in the program. The company also has the right to sell the dedicated bandwidth for commercial purposes whenever it is not being used for public emergencies.
Officials at the news conference did not say exactly when they expect the network to be fully operational, but they said AT&T; would begin immediately building out the network in Kansas.