SAN DIEGO – Public safety communications representatives from California and Colorado said they need clarity and more granular information about the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) state plan before they can recommend their governors choose to allow AT&T, Inc., FirstNet’s network partner, to build a radio access network in their states.
FirstNet was the topic of a panel July 16 held in conjunction with the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners’ (NARUC) Summer Policy Summit here this week. FirstNet and AT&T on June 19 delivered to states plans for AT&T to build and maintain their RANs as part of a nationwide interoperable public safety communications network envisioned by 2012 federal legislation. The individual plans were made available on a restricted access basis through an online portal, but Patrick Mallon, assistant director-public safety communications for the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, said the plan doesn’t contain any additional information to what’s already been available.
“I do not believe the state plan that is being delivered to us is actionable,” he said. “I haven’t seen enough clarity, granularity in the state plan that we received. There is more work that needs to be done, in my opinion. And there’s not enough in there that I can make a recommendation to the governor.”
Some of key concerns for California are network resiliency, how the priority levels are being defined, and if the system will be ready to connect to public safety answering points (PSAPs) immediately because “you can’t exactly take the system down while updates for compatibility are made,” said Mr. Mallon, who is also the state’s FirstNet state point of contact (SPOC).
Expressing similar concerns, Brian Shepherd, chief operating officer for the Colorado Broadband Office and Colorado’s FirstNet SPOC, said that Colorado is “actively looking at the opt-out situation.” The Colorado Governor’s Office of Information Technology earlier this year issued a request for proposals (RFP) concerning the development of an alternative RAN. Mr. Shepherd said the state has received two responses to its RFP and is currently evaluating the proposals. “We want a comprehensive understanding of what the opt-in and opt-out situations will look like,” he said. “It goes far beyond just the financing of it. It is about the daily operations of the public safety systems. If you are turning over your critical communications to a private entity, what does that mean for your state? Not just now, but 15 to 20 years down the road. We need to do our best and make sure we really understand what the impact will be on our state in both situations.”
Several other states including Pennsylvania (07/14/17), Alabama, Michigan, Arizona, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts have issued RFPs for alternative vendors. Last year, New Hampshire awarded a contract to Rivada Networks LLC to prepare an alternative state plan in the event the state decides to opt out of having AT&T build its RAN (09/07/16). Also, evaluators of three alternative FirstNet plan proposals submitted in response to an RFP released by Michigan have recommended that the state consider the submission by Rivada Michigan LLC along with the state plan submitted by FirstNet.
One of the big concerns for the state of Colorado, according to Mr. Shepherd, is transparency. He said there hasn’t been enough information released about the penalties that AT&T could face for not following the rules. “Sometimes telecom companies make a decision that it’s worth the fine,” he added. “We have taken a lot of heat for not being as positive on the opt-in situation as some of the other states,” he said. But at the same time, not all states have the same needs. The “interoperability demands and needs are very different from state to state,” he said.
Overall, Mr. Shepherd said there is a concern that the network is being designed to handle the “very traumatic and very rare events,” and he wants to make sure that “99.9% of emergency events” are covered.
Adam Geisler, FirstNet’s national tribal government liaison, meanwhile, touted the benefit of the FirstNet-AT&T partnership. Last week, Arkansas, Kentucky, Virginia, and Wyoming made announcements that they would allow AT&T to build a RAN in their states rather than attempting to contract to build them. Mr. Geisler called the partnership an “exciting venture to be a part of today.”
“We will have a relationship with AT&T for the next 25 years. They are essentially a vendor to the U.S. government. We’re excited about the overlap of capabilities we both bring to the table,” he added.
According to Mr. Geisler, AT&T was chosen for the FirstNet contract for a number of reasons, including the $180 billion of existing infrastructure the company is bringing to the table. Also the fact that AT&T has been in existence for more than 100 years and has the “ability to stand the test of time” makes it an attractive partner for FirstNet, he said. He also said that a unique element of AT&T’s solution is that it gives users preferred access to network resources, and plans to provide preemption as well.
In response to some criticisms of FirstNet, Mr. Geisler said that “FirstNet is a tool in your toolkit,” and it is “not the end all be all for everything.”
“Our responsibility is nationwide public safety,” he said. “I really respect the comments that have been made here today. They are doing their jobs and looking out for their stakeholders. But, so are we.” What it really boils down to, according to Mr. Geisler, is a fiscal decision on whether the state is going to build a RAN and pay to maintain the RAN for the next 25 years. “Opt out means that the state is going to pay for it themselves and build their own network, and everything else that goes along with it,” he said. “Opt out means the state thinks they are able to deploy on their own RAN, but the pool of resources will not be there for them.”
Around mid-September, the official 90-day clock to opt in or opt out will start. Mr. Geisler said that some states are going to “ride out the entire timeline.” If a governor doesn’t make a decision, the state will automatically opt in. If a governor decides to opt out, the state will have 180 days to select a partner to build the network and then 60 days to present the plan. -Carrie DeLeon, firstname.lastname@example.org