DALLAS, May 24, 2016– The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) will have a tight timeline to meet its goal to deliver state plans next year after awarding a contract to a partner in November, a FirstNet official acknowledged today. The official also observed that it would not be possible for the nationwide public safety broadband network to cover all of the U.S.’s land mass 24 hours a day. During a session this afternoon at the Wireless Infrastructure Association’s Wireless Infrastructure Show (PCIA was dropped from the group’s name today), Ed Parkinson, FirstNet’s director-government affairs, noted that it is spending time preparing states to receive state plans next year. He observed that FirstNet plans to award a contract in November, adding then it has “a very aggressive timeline” for working w ith its partner to deliver state plans by the end of the second quarter of 2017.
Mr. Parkinson said that if states decide to allow FirstNet to build the radio access networks (RANs) in their states, task orders can be issued and deployment can begin “immediately thereafter.” For those states that want to build their own RANs, “it’s complicated,” Mr. Parkinson said. He noted that states would have 180 days to issue a request for proposals (RFP) and must get approvals from the FCC, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and FirstNet. That process could delay deployment by months or years, he said. But he also stressed that FirstNet is committed to making “a success of” states that opt out.
He also said that FirstNet is working on five programmatic environmental impact statements (PEIS) related to deployment of the nationwide network. One of the documents has been completed, he said.
Mr. Parkinson was asked what he would consider a suitable number of bids in response to FirstNet’s RFP. He said it is hard to answer that question, adding, “We feel like we have developed a business model that is going to be profitable to the partner.” He then said, “I think it’s more than one.”
“Is it one? Is it 10?” he asked. “I don’t know, but I think it’s somewhere in between.” Mr. Parkinson also acknowledged that it would not be possible for FirstNet to cover the entire land area of the U.S. 24 hours a day.
“I think it’s fair to say we’re not going to be able to cover everything,” he said. “Are we going to cover every part of Alaska? Hell no.” But he said that technological capabilities such as satellite, drones, and balloons could possibly be deployed to provide coverage when necessary to “very rural parts of the nation.”
Chad Breckinridge, associate chief of the FCC’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, noted that the bureau is seeking comment on proposed changes to the nationwide programmatic agreement (NPA) for collocated antennas to further streamline the deployment of distributed antenna systems (DAS) and small cells. In addition, he noted, the FCC is working “on a single proposal” to address the “twilight tower” issue. Those towers are not eligible for collocation because they did not go through the section 106 review process required by the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA).
The bureau also is working to ensure improvements in tribal consultation on wireless infrastructure siting, Mr. Breckinridge said. He noted the recent filing of a petition on that topic. Darrell Smith, telecommunications specialist at the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Emergency Communications, cited progress that is being made in implementing an executive order issued by President Obama in 2012 to ease broadband projects’ access to federally controlled lands, buildings, and rights-of-way (TRDaily, June 14, 2012).
The executive order established a Broadband Deployment on Federal Property Working Group, which Mr. Smith co-chairs, to help ensure coordination of access policies across government agencies. Among other actions, the group is working on developing a standard process for review by land management agencies of facility applications to deploy on federal lands, Mr. Smith said. He said the working group wants to hear examples of where policies are working and not working for industry.
Mr. Breckinridge also said the FCC is interested in learning of problems that companies are having in siting infrastructure, and not only when a party files a petition at the agency.
The speakers were also asked what transitional issues they expected at their employers after a new presidential administration arrives. Mr. Parkinson noted that other than political appointees on FirstNet’s board, there are no political appointees at the agency, while Mr. Smith said he is hopeful that the new administration has the same commitment to deploying broadband infrastructure. Mr. Breckinridge noted all the FCC Commissioners support facilitating the deployment of wireless infrastructure. But he added that there is “some internal thinking about sort of teeing up key issues that may remain after this administration times out.” He invited industry to meet with the agency to suggest priorities they think the agency should focus on.
During an earlier panel discussion, Jeff Steinberg, deputy chief of the Competition and Infrastructure Policy Division in the Wireless Bureau, also mentioned that the bureau has proposed amendments to the NPA for collocated antennas. He noted that comments are due June 13. Mr. Steinberg pointed out that the bureau is hoping for completion of the changes in July. “This will be effective when it’s signed by everybody and published in the ‘Federal Register,’” he said, noting that an FCC order is not necessary. The changes must also be signed by the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation and the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers.
Robert Millar, associate general counsel for Crown Castle International Corp., said the industry has had success in getting some states to adopt rules governing pole attachment rules. For example, he noted, Ohio has adopted rules, as has Washington state. He also said the industry has weighed in as New York is looking at rules. On another issue, California officials have considered acting to improve pole safety, Mr. Millar noted.
Speakers also noted issues in states such as Pennsylvania and Texas on the treatment of DAS and small cell providers, which have complained about onerous fees charged by localities. Mr. Millar also said that some states are charging high fees for access to ROWs. One audience member said some state highway departments have said they would grant exclusive access to one provider.
Scott Thompson, a partner at Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, said jurisdictions are trying to treat small cells “as a cash cow” and differently than incumbent wireline infrastructure.
Vincent Nelan, of counsel at Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC, complained that utilities have “a take-it-or-leave-it sort of attitude” regarding the terms of installation of wireless communications equipment on their poles. He stressed the need to educate local officials that small cells are different than macro sites and that macro sites “will still be needed.” One locality sought a portion of the company’s revenues nationally in exchange for granting permission, he said.
“They’re saying, ‘We don’t know what you’re doing, we’re going to slow it down,’” Greg Gapisarda, a partner at Saul Ewing LLP, said of some jurisdictions’ reaction to DAS and small cell equipment installations, such as those in Virginia and Maryland. —Paul Kirby, email@example.com