Andy Seybold’s PSA Discovery Patterns, July 22, 2016

NTIA Publishes State Opt-Out Guidelines:  This week NTIA released a document that will have a significant impact on states considering opting out. The NTIA’s document, for which comments are due by August 19, 2016, is entitled, “State Alternative Plan Program (SAPP) and the First Responder Network Authority Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network.” The full document can be found at https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2016-07-19/pdf/2016-17034.pdf

Note: A state that opts out of the FirstNet build plan needs to provide its own Radio Access Network or RAN. That is, the cell sites that will connect to the FirstNet backend or Evolved Packet Core (EPC), which is the brains of the network. I plan to file comments and I suggest any state even considering opting out at least read this document very closely. If comments are appropriate, that state should file before the deadline. I would never suggest to any state that it opt out, rather my thought is to work with FirstNet and the partner and accept the coverage being offered, perhaps with some suggested modifications. Also, make sure your state has the right to negotiate with the partner so after building the RAN in the state there will be ways to expand coverage of the network.

This could be accomplished in several ways. One would be for the FirstNet partner to agree to add the coverage because it would also give the partner better access to the spectrum on a secondary basis (more capacity). The next way would be for the city, county, or state to pay for an additional RAN and have it installed by the FirstNet partner or a qualified, pre-approved vendor. There are a number of combinations of these two that might make some sense, but I would opt for gaining the best coverage possible from FirstNet and then moving forward. Back to the Document from the NTIA My first issue is not with the NTIA document but rather with the law that spells out that the opt-out process must include several steps. According to the NTIA document, the law states, “First, a state must submit its alternative plan for the construction, maintenance, operation and improvements of its RAN to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and meet specific interoperability criteria established by the FCC.”

The FCC is then required to review the state’s plan for RAN deployment within that state and either agree or disagree based on a document that was created by the FCC and its task force several years ago. (Technical Rules for Public Safety Spectrum, https://apps.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/FCC-12-68A1.pdf) In reality, FirstNet and the partner’s current plans may or may not include all of the items covered in the FCC document, but the FCC is to approve or not approve the plan based on its criteria and not the criteria of the current partner and FirstNet engineers. I see many problems with this. First, the FCC has, by law, had to have been hands-off in any planning or system design. Two, the FCC may decide to turn each state’s request into a long, drawn-out affair including public comment periods and other time-consuming investigations that could materially impact the network timeline. If the FCC does not approve the state plan, FirstNet has a green light to build the network in that state. There has to be a better way to make sure the FCC is satisfied with the opt-out plan.

Back to the NTIA Once Again! If the state RAN plan is approved by the FCC, the NTIA will review it and each opt-out state must demonstrate the following, “1) that it has the technical capabilities to operate and the funding to support its RAN; 2) that it has the ability to maintain ongoing interoperability with the NPSBN; 3) that it has the ability to complete the project within specified comparable timelines specific to the state; 4) the cost-effectiveness of the state alternative plan submitted to the FCC; and, 5) comparable security, coverage, and quality of service to that of the NPSBN.” Next up is the final step in the process, or at least in the law, “assuming the state has successfully made such demonstrations to NTIA, the state then must negotiate and enter into a spectrum capacity lease with FirstNet, which will be required for operation of the state RAN.”

As mentioned, I will be submitting comments on this document. I have reviewed it and there are some things I will be questioning about the NTIA process in my comments. On the whole, the document lays out what a state must provide the NTIA after obtaining approval from the FCC, but in some of the language it appears as though the NTIA has already determined some things its believes are non-starters. Consider the statement, “Thus, for example, and as discussed more fully below, a state that proposes to utilize a “greenfield” network [a network built from scratch by someone that does not already have a network] for its RAN will be unlikely to successfully demonstrate to NTIA that its alternative plan is cost-effective.” This appears to indicate that any state that decides to opt out must already have an existing network partner lined up and ready. Yet there may not be enough time for a state to talk to the various networks, including the one that may have won the FirstNet RFP, and make a legally binding decision. Suppose another company that has the expertise works with a state and “pools” existing sites, perhaps using some Public Safety sites and, therefore, builds a “greenfield” network? Would this be an exception to the elimination of greenfield networks?

I believe the NTIA’s intent for this document and request for a comment period is to let states know as far ahead as possible what they will need to do to provide the NTIA with the documentation needed to proceed. The final document then, can be used as a roadmap for any opt-out states when they are preparing their plan to deploy their own RAN. However, I am left wondering how long it will be before the NTIA publishes the final document. I wonder because the NTIA had requested comments on another document entitled, “Proposed Scope of NTIA’s Authority Regarding FirstNet Fees,” which was released in December of 2015. Responses were submitted, and as of today, I know of no final outcome of this request for comments. Perhaps I missed the final document’s release but if I did, so did a number of others. It is particularly important that this opt-out document be finalized as quickly as possible to give any opt-out state the opportunity to move forward even before the RFP award is made later this year. Have a great weekend! Andy

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