Andy Seybold’s Public Safety Advocate, March 18, 2017

FirstNet Back on Track (?)  The Public Safety community, FirstNet, and AT&T are all pleased that the U.S. Federal Claims judge ruled against Rivada. The court denied Rivada’s contention that it was wrongfully excluded from being moved into the final competitive range of the process. The judge also granted additional motions to both the U.S. Department of Justice and AT&T but these motions have not been released and may not be since many of the proceedings have been sealed.

Obviously, there were different reactions to the news. Mike Poth, CEO of FirstNet, issued a press release in which he stated, “We are pleased with the Court’s decision. This is a positive development for FirstNet and the public safety community. FirstNet intends to move expeditiously to finalize the contract for the nationwide public safety broadband network.” The statement received from Rivada, the loser in the court decision, was a tweet that stated, “U.S. Court of Fed Claims motion denied. Considering appeal & are ramping up with States that want option to exercise opt-out right.” I am sure Rivada Mercury will make additional statements about the ruling but at the moment it appears as though FirstNet will move quickly forward with AT&T, the only bidder rumored to have made it to the final stage of the RFP selection process and that also filed in support of the federal government’s activities to defend the RFP bidder selection process.

Where do we go from here? I believe that if at all possible FirstNet will make an award to the final bidder in a matter of weeks if not days, and that will start the six-month phase one clock ticking. At the end of this phase of the project, the FirstNet Partner has to provide the states with the plans it and FirstNet will have developed for providing coverage to each state. The clock will then start for the states to evaluate the proposal and decide they will opt into or out of the FirstNet plan. Opting in will mean the FirstNet Partner will build out the network in that state. Opting out will mean the state will have to begin a fairly tedious process of convincing the FCC its state plan is fully compatible with the FirstNet network, then dealing with the NTIA to try to secure a grant to help defray the cost of its build-out, and finally negotiating a spectrum lease with FirstNet.

This is where it gets interesting. FirstNet, the potential partner, and many others have weighed in about a state opting in or out. Regular readers of my columns know I am an opt-in proponent because I believe opting in, but negotiating a way to add onto the network, is the best of both worlds. It allows the FirstNet Partner to build out in a state and then enables them to work together toward the goal of increasing coverage where needed over time. There are multiple ways these increases can be funded as I am sure we will all soon discover. If a state opts out it will get what is promised by the opt-out contractor, probably without a provision to add to the initial coverage.

Some states have supposedly been promised they will be able to use the secondary income from the network for whatever the state wants to do with the reported major “windfall.” The first problem with this is that all of this secondary revenue except for funds needed to maintain the state’s portion of the FirstNet network must be turned over to FirstNet. The second is that many of the states that have been promised big paydays will find that if they opt out and choose a vendor other than the FirstNet Partner the promised payday will either not come at all or be a long time coming.

One of the states that has already chosen Rivada as its opt-out partner if it chooses to opt-out is interesting in that our research shows there is not a single county within this state that can generate sufficient Public Safety revenue or any secondary spectrum revenue to support a network. Therefore, depending on how the contract between the state and Rivada is written, the state could be on the hook for the shortfall year after year. While this state is the only one so far that has awarded a contract IF it decides to opt out, several other states share the same dismal outlook for generating enough revenue to pay for the build-out, operation, and network upgrades over a 30-year period.

Congress realized that since the federal government was not willing to fund this network beyond the $7 billion raised during a spectrum auction that the network would have to be built out by private partners to FirstNet willing to invest billions more. Further, the only way it would work would be if all the income from the larger states was paid into FirstNet to offset build-out and operational losses in smaller, less populated states. Even though those elected to Congress represent their own state and their own district within that state they still understood that unless this network becomes an all-in, nationwide network it would fail. Overall, opting out and going it alone is not the best move for most states. Unfortunately, many states are not being given straight or correct answers by those trying to convince them to opt out. I hope all of the states will wait until they have had a chance to review their state plan as provided by FirstNet and its Partner. Then they will be able to negotiate with the Partner prior to making the opt-in or opt-out decision. They certainly should not make the decision based on current politics versus what is best for the state.

Moving Forward. Once the contract is signed and work begins, I hope those who have been living and breathing FirstNet for these past five or more years will be realistic about what lies ahead. There has never been a wireless network I know of, Public Safety, utility, or commercial, that has been built out perfectly the first time. Mistakes are made, problems occur, and changes must be made on the fly to obtain the best coverage. Some of you know and the others may find out that the best computer-generated coverage maps do not reflect the actual coverage that will be achieved once towers are in the ground and the equipment is up and operational. In my 40-plus-year career in wireless I have designed and helped build and test hundreds of wireless networks of all kinds. Some have under-performed predictions, some have over-performed in certain areas, some have been installed and coverage has changed due to a new building being erected or, believe it or not, leaves coming out on trees in the spring.

Wireless networks are part science and part black art, which is one reason FirstNet needs “been there, done that engineers.” Interference issues will crop up, some permits won’t be forthcoming as needed, towers that were planned to be used might be deemed to exceed their wind loading capacity, there will be delays in ordering and obtaining backhaul including fiber and microwave, and many more issues. Murphy does not only visit projects such as this, he camps out while they are in process. Patience is an important part of network construction, testing, and system acceptance. Coverage is a key issue for Public Safety as is capacity, but the network won’t be perfect when it is first turned on in your area, none of them ever are. However, it will improve over time and grow better and faster if the user community helps identify problems and not simply gripes about the network.

FirstNet should be back on track. Hopefully Rivada will be gracious in its loss and perhaps even work to help promote the success of FirstNet. If not it will only damage its image further. One thing I know for sure about those in the Public Safety community is they have long memories. Let’s all work together now to plan this network, bring it up and put it into operation, and have applications, data, and video flowing over it. Perhaps we can even try out PTT from time to time as the network advances, but for now, let’s use it to augment existing voice systems and not try to replace them.

Congratulations, FirstNet, your team has worked long and hard to reach this point. I am hopeful that there are smoother waters ahead. Let the work begin now, Public Safety needs this network! Andrew M. Seybold

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