Andy Seybold’s Public Safety Advocate, April 29, 2016

FirstNet tries to be clear but still there is confusion. This week it comes from the Blog posted on the FirstNet site by the FirstNet Director of Outreach. She said states could now modify their state submissions to FirstNet until the end of September. This immediately lit up my email and phone from people who may or may not be responding to the RFP (none of them will admit to it). This time the issue of concern was something not said as opposed to what was said. In the RFP specifications there is a section where each vendor must place a monetary value on the build-out of each state. These build-outs are based on the FirstNet and state’s current coverage requirements. In some cases there are significant differences between what is covered today by existing LTE broadband networks and what some states want. Some states have even asked for coverage beyond their existing LMR coverage. All of this adds up to additional funds that might be needed to build out a state.

If the state opts out, the value of the state’s build-out as provided by the winning RFP bidder can be withheld from the $6.5 billion FirstNet is to pay the winning vendor. This money is then given to the state that opts out once it has met the opt-out criteria. . So the emails and calls I received went like this: If we do bid, and we set the price for a state, say Kansas, and now Kansas is permitted to change its coverage requirements up to the end of September, how do we make sure the deployment cost we set for the State of Kansas is still accurate when we turn in our proposal four months prior to the new state deadline? Based on a number of these types of inquires, I set out to try to determine whether the extension for the states filing their requirements included the ability to change their coverage requirements. What I learned was that no, while the states can, in fact, update the number of first responders in their state and other FirstNet requirements, they are not permitted to change the coverage requirements for their state that have been included in the RFP. This makes sense and protects potential bidders.

However, there are still some states suffering from delusions of grandeur when it comes to coverage they require from FirstNet. So at least the coverage portion of the RFP will not change. However, a requirement I assumed was included is missing from the RFP. This requirement is that states, counties, and cities can negotiate with the winning bidder to add their own increased coverage to the FirstNet network in their jurisdiction. We know that even with all the work the states and FirstNet have done, many cities and counties have not been consulted regarding coverage they would require from FirstNet in order to want to make use of the network. We have discussed this with many counties and cities and find there is a willingness on their part to fund additional cell sites and inbuilding network coverage. Obviously, this would benefit not only the Public Safety community but also the RFP winner that would be able to make use of the excess spectrum provided by cell sites and inbuilding coverage that was paid for by the jurisdiction and that met the FirstNet and vendor’s criteria for network compatibility.

FirstNet by law is intended to provide a network based on a public/private partnership. In reality it should be at least a three-way partnership between FirstNet (the feds), the winning bidder, and the Public Safety community as represented by the cities, counties, and states that will have to decide whether or not to sign up to use the network. Giving these local entities the ability to pay for and expand their local coverage can only add to the FirstNet coverage and enable the winning vendor to capitalize on and monetize the secondary spectrum usage on the FirstNet network.

While I was working with a team that decided not to bid on the RFP, I spent a lot of time on rural coverage requirements. This included coverage provided by rural carriers and other rural organizations, vehicle-mounted satellite systems as mentioned last week, and with several federal agencies to solve the issue of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV or drone) use during wildland fires. Manned fixed-wing equipment and helicopters do not mix well with UAVs and pilots who are trying to drop water or retardant where it is needed do not have time to try to avoid a UAV providing communications at a major fire or other incident. However, there is a way both piloted vehicles and UAVs can work together in harmony to provide the assistance needed by those on the ground whose task is to contain the fire. I am sure other potential vendors have identified this problem as well. These and other issues all need to be addressed by companies and partnerships planning to submit their proposals by the end of May.

Other issues include what to me is the toughest task to face the company selected to provide the network and services: how to build out the network to the point where first responders who are not required to join the network will want to use it. This will be a matter of providing sufficient coverage in a given area to compete with the LTE coverage already available from commercial operators or some way to enable first responders to move quickly and seamlessly between the FirstNet network and one or more commercial network. I believe this will be a key to the success of FirstNet and it is dependent on how the selected vendor approaches both the network build-out and how much they charge Public Safety for its use. Many issues face vendors that are working on their responses to the RFP. According to some at FirstNet, all a bidder has to do is meet or exceed the sixteen points FirstNet has been referring to since well before the final RFP was released. However, the RFP itself also needs to be addressed in detail so the selected vendor will have to be willing to agree to most if not all of the conditions placed on it by the RFP. I also wonder, and hope I am wrong, whether a vendor can simply respond to the RFP promising FirstNet a lot more money than the minimum payments that are required during the twenty-Five-year contract. If the financial aspects of the payments outweigh the needs of the Public Safety community, we have not accomplished the goal that prompted the creation of FirstNet. Yes, money is important, but more important are the needs of the Public Safety community. Promises of future riches by any of the RFP respondents in hopes of swaying FirstNet to an award that is not in the best interests of the Public Safety community should not even be considered.
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