FirstNet, NTIA Officials Stress Difficulty of States Contracting to Build RANs

May 19, 2017–Officials from the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration last night said that states hoping to contract to build their own radio access networks (RANs) rather than having AT&T, Inc., FirstNet’s network partner, do so will face hurdles in getting authorization from the federal government and constructing and maintaining the system.

At an event on FirstNet organized by the Federal Communications Bar Association’s engineering and technical and homeland security and emergency communications committees, Jason Karp, FirstNet’s chief counsel, said, “When we say opt out, what we’re saying is the state is going to make the decision to take on the operational, financial, technical responsibility to build, deploy, maintain, and upgrade the radio access network portion of the nationwide network in their state for the life and perpetuity of that network. That’s what it means. It’s a big undertaking.”

He also said, “When we say opt out … that’s a poor term because no one’s opting out of anything. This is intended to be a nationwide network.”

Marsha MacBride, NTIA’s associate administrator-Office of Public Safety Communications, stressed the difficulty that states will face in securing a spectrum lease to operate their own RAN.

Under the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, which established FirstNet, governors have 90 days after receiving the FirstNet state plan to notify the government that they want to opt out of having FirstNet’s partner build a RAN in their states.

Within 180 days after that, states must complete a request for proposals (RFP) and submit an alternative plan for approval by the FCC, which is charged with reviewing whether plans would comply with minimum technical interoperability requirements. If the FCC approves a state plan, the state has to apply to NTIA for authority to secure a spectrum capacity lease agreement with FirstNet. States seeking to build their own RANs may also apply to NTIA for grant funds to help cover those costs.

If the FCC rejects a state’s alternative plan, states must negotiate with FirstNet as the terms of the state plan that had been delivered might not remain, according to an NTIA video on the process shown at last night’s event.

Ms. MacBride noted that among the things an alternative plan must show is adequate funding; cost-effectiveness; and comparable security, quality of service, and deployment timelines.

Jeff Cohen, chief counsel and director-government relations for the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials-International who helped draft the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act as a House aide, said that Congress crafted the opt-out language, which he said was inserted late in the legislative negotiation process, to discourage states from attempting to build their own RANs. “It’s not easy to opt out, and there’s a reason because the … original vision of FirstNet was we needed a nationwide approach,” he said. “State and local builds of public safety networks were not achieving, and still don’t achieve, interoperability, and the goal was to achieve interoperability. So the process is, on purpose, unforgiving.”

He noted that some “people are seeking to gain some flexibility” in getting approval for alternative state plans, such as asking the FCC to allow states to amend their plans if necessary if the Commission identifies problems with them and giving them additional time to complete a contract with a vendor. But Mr. Cohen said the legislation makes clear that that’s not permitted. “No amendments, no second chances,” he said. “We just don’t see much wiggle room.”

He also said that there are similarities today between 911 and where public safety broadband was before FirstNet was created. “If you think about it, 911 is kind of an island in the middle of incredible innovation all around it,” he said, calling 911 and public safety broadband “the twin pillars of the future of emergency response.”

Stephanie Baldanzi, senior legal counsel for AT&T, said that states won’t get the details of what AT&T is offering until they receive the state plans. Draft state plans are expected to be delivered in mid-June.

“We are hopeful that we are going to put a set of plans in front of the states that they are going to see the value,” she said. “We’ll see what happens.”She was asked if AT&T can get out of its 25-year contract with FirstNet if a number of states opt out, making the project less financial desirable for the carrier. “We signed up for a 25-year contract with FirstNet. We are bound to deliver and …. we are confident that what we are going to deliver is going to be attractive to the states,” Ms. Baldanzi replied. “There’s no out for AT&T.”

On an earlier panel, speakers stressed the importance of strong cybersecurity in the nationwide network, including for public safety apps.

Morgan Reed, president of ACT, which represents apps developers, said the deployment of the apps ecosystem has to be done in collaboration with users of the network. “The roll-out of FirstNet applications has to be done with first responders and not to them because if it’s not, … the adoption rate will be terrible and first responders will continue to hack the system using publicly available applications on their smart devices,” he said.

He also stressed the need for “localizable” apps for each area, and cited the challenge of getting a return on apps for a community that has a relatively small population base – 5 to 13 million people.

FirstNet Chief Technology Officer Jeff Bratcher said FirstNet “took security very seriously” in crafting its RFP that led to AT&T’s successful bid.

Mr. Karp discussed what it’s been like to build up an independent authority within the federal government, including dealing with a myriad of issues that have never been previously addressed.

“I still don’t know what an independent authority is,” he said. “It’s a fascinating … ride and experience. It’s raised novel … issues, legal and regulatory, [and] technical. This is something truly [that] hasn’t been done before.”

He noted that there has been much speculation about whether the award to AT&T was “predetermined,” saying that it wasn’t and pointing to what he said was the “rigor [that] was put into this analysis.”- Paul Kirby, paul.kirby@wolterskluwer.com

Courtesy TRDaily