State Officials Generally Pleased with Two-Day FirstNet Meeting

Several state officials told TR Daily today that they were pleased with the two-day meeting held by the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) in Dallas this week to discuss the impending delivery of state plans (TR Daily, June 8). They also said it was a good idea to allow states to inform the authority sooner than planned that they want AT&T, Inc., to build radio access networks (RANs) in their states. “I appreciate the flexibility being offered in the process for Governors to accelerate deployment if there are no concerns with the plan presented,” said Red Grasso, deputy director of FirstNetNC in the North Carolina Department of Information Technology and the state’s acting FirstNet state point of contact (SPOC). “While all of the plans are being released on the same day, Governors are now able to make a decision at their own pace as long as they do not exceed the timeframe allowed by the law. It’s going to be an exciting couple of months, almost like watching the presidential election results on a state-by-state basis.”

FirstNet hopes to deliver state plans on June 19.

During a conference call with reporters yesterday, FirstNet Chief Customer Officer Rich Reed said states will have 45 days to review the state plans and make any comments. FirstNet will then take 45 days to review those comments and respond to them. Then the plans would be made official. Once final states plans are delivered, governors would have 90 days to decide whether to have AT&T build their RANs to seek to build their own.

However, if states have no questions with the original versions of their plans to be delivered this month, they can notify FirstNet and the 90-day period can begin for governors to officially review their plans. States can notify FirstNet as soon as they want during that period that they want AT&T to build their RANs.

Originally, FirstNet had said it would deliver draft state plans to states this month and final states plans by the end of September.

Overall, this week’s meeting with FirstNet and AT&T “went well,” Mr. Grasso said. “This was the first SPOC event held since AT&T was announced as the winner and it had a different feel. ‘We won’t know until we have a partner’ was no longer an answer to many of the questions. I felt that AT&T did a good job in presenting information about their offering in a straight-forward manner that didn’t leave me feeling like it was a marketing conference. We were able to see a demonstration of the State Plan Portal, and I feel that layout will allow members of our state plan evaluation team to focus on specific areas of the plan. The general feeling from AT&T and FirstNet mirrors our own – no one wants the Terms of Use to delay or prevent a State from accessing the information, and we will all work out any issues that exist.”

During yesterday’s conference call with reporters, Mr. Reed acknowledged that some states had expressed concern about the terms of use of the online portal to be used to deliver plans. He said there is a need to protect AT&T’s intellectual property and ensure that the disclosure of any information does not create “any security vulnerabilities.” The terms of use will be refined, Mr. Reed said, adding, “We’re going to find a place where everybody’s comfortable.”

Asked for specifics about concerns about terms of use, Mr. Grasso cited “[s]ome of the language concerning indemnification (which has already been resolved) and limitation of liability, as an example.”

Kelly Gottsponer, public safety broadband outreach and education coordinator for the state of Arkansas, also gave the FirstNet state plan meeting high marks today. She said she has attended all five of FirstNet’s SPOC meetings, and agreed that at previous sessions, FirstNet officials said they couldn’t provide many details yet that states sought on deployment of the network. “Over the past two days, everything has really gotten to a point where it is very tangible, which is very nice,” she said, noting that speakers addressed what AT&T is able to offer and why it was awarded a 25-year contract as FirstNet’s network partner.

As for the terms of use of the information in plans on the online portal, Ms. Gottsponer said that among the concerns expressed were information that could and couldn’t be shared and data that might be subject to Freedom of Information Act requests.  “I think that ultimately, it’s not going to be an issue,” she said. She also said she supports FirstNet’s decision to allow states to opt in to the network sooner. “If a state is perfectly comfortable with an offer that is placed in front of them … I think that is a wonderful idea, then they can get started,” she said. “The faster they can get it, the better.” States that have consulted closely with FirstNet might be more likely to be in that position, she added.

“If a state has performed their due diligence and AT&T is able to deliver a plan which meets their goals, then being able to opt-in early may be the right decision for their first responders,” agreed Vicki Helfrich, executive officer of the Mississippi Wireless Communication Commission and the state’s SPOC. “However, I’m not sure how many states will be able to seize that opportunity. I think it will be extremely important for states to carefully review their draft state plans and provide actionable feedback to FirstNet and AT&T if they are not satisfied.  I am hopeful that both FirstNet and AT&T are sincere when they say they will work with states to address their concerns.”

Ms. Helfrich also said that Mississippi has “been in discussions with FirstNet and AT&T for several months now.  Most of the information we heard at the SPOC meeting was a duplication of what we have previously discussed with them.  One of the key areas we will be reviewing, when we gain access to the state portal, will be the level of coverage in the rural areas of our state – both current coverage as well as the future coverage to be provided by AT&T’s build-out plans over the five-year deployment period.   While this is not the only area we will be reviewing, it is one of the most important.  Mississippi is a rural state and we have coverage issues, just like every other rural state.  We believe that AT&T can quickly provide rural coverage where needed in Mississippi by leveraging our MSWIN public safety infrastructure coupled with AT&T’s existing footprint.”

During yesterday’s call with reporters, Chris Sambar, AT&T’s senior vice president-FirstNet, said that on the first day of this week’s meeting, “you had a lot of people walk in the door with skepticism on their face because they didn’t know what the solution was because they hadn’t been told yet.” He added, “Their mood clearly softened over the hours and over the two days. … So we’re feeling really good about it.”

Another state official was asked today to assess Mr. Sambar’s statement. “I’d probably characterize it more as legitimate concern than skepticism, though there was some of that as well – many in the SPOC community have been at this for years; having the corporate partner in the room and moving at full-steam is taking some getting used to depending on where each of the SPOCs are at,” the official said. “The change to the dynamic comes from the fact that the SPOCs are now having to work with both FirstNet coordinators and AT&T representatives.”

The official added that “FirstNet did work hard to address the questions and concerns that were lobbed during the sessions I was in.  Much of the detail surrounding an ‘early opt-in’ and the use of the AT&T network ahead of the [public safety spectrum] build-out have been presented one-on-one to the states prior to the meeting – I think some of the discomfort may have had to do with that message not having been harmonized – again, things are moving fast.”

The official also said that “whether for an early opt-in decision or per the original schedule, it’s incumbent on each SPOC to perform diligence on the plans when they are made available, and for those states leaning opt-in, there will be increasing utility in engaging AT&T along-side or even in parallel with FirstNet to ensure they: (1) get the best arrangement for their state; and, (2) are in the best position to advise their governor.” —Paul Kirby, paul.kirby@wolterskluwer.com

Courtesy TRDaily