Opting Out of FirstNet Each state has the right to opt out of the plan FirstNet and the selected partner vendor presents to it. However, it the state does opt out, it is then required to jump through a number of hoops in order to be able to build out its portion of the network. First it must submit a plan to the FCC for approval, then both the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and FirstNet become involved in the process. The state has to negotiate a lease for the spectrum with FirstNet and then the NTIA has to approve a grant to help fund the state’s build. Opting out is a complex process with a lot of room for delays and problems. There is nothing I can find in the law that says a state can simply sit back and do nothing. In fact, it appears as though FirstNet will have the right to build in a state that either does not meet the opt-out criteria or merely decides not to be part of the network. All of this seems like a convoluted way to basically punish a state for not being part of FirstNet.
Let’s be clear here, this is not FirstNet’s set of rules, it is not even NTIA’s set of rules. Rather, this is how Congress crafted Title VI of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 that was signed into law. It is odd to me that members of Congress who are elected by the people in their states included this type of wording. Perhaps they understood that the network would better serve the Public Safety community if it were all one network, operated by a single entity, with the funds flowing to the RFP partner and to FirstNet to provide both profit for the RFP partner and funding to expand the network or add more coverage over time. The principal issues I see that could derail the opt-out process start with the FCC having to approve each and every state’s plan and to ensure the Radio Access Network or RAN (the cell sites, basically) is fully compatible with the FirstNet network for true interoperability. It is not clear how long the FCC will take to review each of the state’s requests.
To begin with, the FCC is long on attorneys and short on technical expertise. If it elects to fully use its powers under the Administrative Procedures Act (APA), it could choose to have a separate Public Notice and comment period for each state’s plan that is presented, the process could take months to complete. And FCC approval is only the first of three steps a state must go through. What if the FCC and FirstNet’s opinions differ on a state’s RAN architecture and the FCC approves it but FirstNet has an issue with it? Or the other way around? There is nothing in the legislation to address a possible stalemate, which could add more time. FirstNet holds the license for the spectrum, which is issued by the FCC, and the NTIA has no jurisdiction over the FirstNet spectrum. The NTIA only has control over federal government spectrum, not FirstNet spectrum even though FirstNet is technically an “independent authority” under the auspices of the NTIA and the Department of Commerce. So the first set of delays for a state to move forward in opt-out mode could be with the FCC’s approval. Next are the negotiations with FirstNet for a spectrum lease. Continue reading