Emergency responders might share their LTE network with the rest of us

One proposal for the FirstNet system involves a network other carriers could buy into

A national LTE network for U.S. public-safety agencies would also give consumers better mobile service if a startup gets to build a futuristic network-sharing system.

The company, Rivada Mercury, is one of the players that wants to build the so-called FirstNet LTE network, the government's plan to unify mobile communications for first responders. The federal government is allocating a block of spectrum and about $6.5 billion in funding for the network, which is supposed to start going live next year.

Rivada Mercury is a partnership that includes major mobile network vendors, Intel Security and other companies. At the center of this group is Rivada Networks, a startup with a technology called DSA (Dynamic Spectrum Arbitrage).

DSA is an automated, real-time market for frequencies on a wireless network. It lets multiple service providers bid for any frequencies that are available at a given time and place on the network. Rivada’s software makes the spectrum available at wholesale to the highest bidder.

Users on that commercial network would get to use the extra capacity at that time. Some mobile devices already have radios for the spectrum FirstNet will use, called Band 14, and a wide range of devices should have them by the time the network goes live, Rivada says.

In this case, DSA would sell frequencies not currently being used by police, firefighters or other public-safety users. If those services needed the network, it would hand the spectrum over to them within milliseconds, Rivada says.

Building the FirstNet system would be expensive, but running it could be lucrative because of the chance to use spare capacity for commercial services. The government’s $6.5 billion won’t cover the cost of building the whole network, but the spectrum won’t cost anything.

“Carriers will have to do some careful cost analysis,” analyst Lynnette Luna of Current Analysis said earlier this year. AT&T has said it will aggressively pursue the opportunity.

The names on the Rivada Mercury team are impressive. Ericsson and Nokia are there for wireless infrastructure and Fujitsu Network Communications for backhaul. Harris, a maker of public-safety communications gear, is also there. Black & Veatch is a major telecom construction firm.

The company also says it can give first responders broader coverage beyond the FirstNet system through roaming on an unnamed national mobile carrier.

However, it’s hard to say whether service providers will embrace Rivada’s sharing system or how many devices will be equipped to use Band 14, Tolaga Research analyst Phil Marshall said. He thinks those sharing the spectrum would be new entrants and second-tier service providers, especially ones that target vertical markets where economies of scale are less vital.