DENVER – First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) board Chairwoman Sue Swenson said today that “customized and individualized” plans that FirstNet delivered to states and territories in June are “paying … great dividends.” During remarks this morning at the APCO 2017 show here, Ms. Swenson said that FirstNet in June delivered to states and territories (TR Daily, June 19) “customized and individualized state plans that reflect the input and priorities from the consultation meetings that FirstNet held with key people over the past several years.”
“I think that is paying … great dividends right now as the states are reviewing their state plans,” she added. She also noted that a growing number of states or territories have announced that they will opt in to the FirstNet system. “It’s a diverse set of states, with a mix of urban, rural, and remote geographies and topography,” she noted, although most of the states are generally rural.
Ms. Swenson also emphasized what she said was the commitment of AT&T, Inc., FirstNet’s network partner, to meeting the needs of public safety. “This is a very high priority for them,” she said, noting, among other things, that first responders in opt-in states will get priority access on AT&T LTE spectrum immediately and preemption by the end of this year.
While 14 states or territories having announced that they will opt in to the FirstNet system, with Kansas becoming the latest today, some state officials and line first responders have cited concerns with some portions of state plans and what AT&T is offering. Among the biggest complaints are coverage and cost. For example, such concerns have been voiced by first responders in California – an important state for AT&T to convince to opt in.
At a meeting earlier this month of the Los Angeles Regional Interoperable Communications System (LA-RICS), Pat Mallon, who is California’s FirstNet single point of contact (SPOC) and assistant director-public safety communications for the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, outlined survey responses from first responders who attended meetings around the state on the state plan delivered in in June. Mr. Mallon said “there’s a significant concern regarding the AT&T coverage,” adding that some agencies are worried “that they currently had to go to other providers because AT&T’s coverage wasn’t … acceptable.” There also “was a lot of concern about the cost and the lack of clarity,” Mr. Mallon added.
The state submitted 687 comments to FirstNet. Just more than half of them mentioned a lack of AT&T coverage in specified areas.
During a session at last month’s National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners’ (NARUC) Summer Policy Summit in San Diego (TR Daily, July 17), Mr. Mallon said the state plan that California received 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.”
Even officials in some states that have opted in have suggested that the state plans did not contain enough detailed information. “Virginia was surprised that the information contained in the [plan] turned out to be a lot of the same information that FirstNet and AT&T had already provided. There was no significant information to analyze. Besides the state coverage map and local data, most of the information is similar to the public site,” Curtis Brown, deputy secretary-public safety and homeland security for the state of Virginia, the first state to opt in, told the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee at a hearing last month (TR Daily, July 20).
“It was Virginia’s assessment that the lack of specific information in the plan, in combination with the statutory constrained timeline, made it clear that this draft plan was in fact the ultimate, final state plan,” Mr. Brown explained. “This reality solidified Virginia’s decision to opt-in now; there were only benefits to doing so, and none for waiting.”
Red Grasso, the FirstNet SPOC for the state of North Carolina, told TR Daily that his state’s plan “does not contain any big surprises over what is publicly known. AT&T has stated that B14 [Band 14] is being used for adding capacity and not coverage. This does leave some coverage concerns for our rural areas. That said, the meetings and discussions we have had over the past several weeks with AT&T has shown a desire to address those concerns. The pricing reflected in the plan may make it difficult for AT&T to achieve the adoption goals, however since they have such goals mandated by their contract with FirstNet then I wouldn’t be surprised to see actual negotiated prices with agencies to come in below the published rates.”
Mr. Grasso, deputy director of FirstNetNC in the North Carolina Department of Information Technology, said North Carolina’s state plan evaluation team drafted “over 270 questions, concerns, and praises on the FirstNet State Plan.”
A public safety consultant who has worked with states on reviewing state plans told TR Daily that some in public safety feel that Verizon Communications, Inc., which has a dominant share of the public safety market, has a better network than AT&T. They also feel that AT&T’s promised coverage is “too aggressive” to be reliable enough for first responders and that the pricing of the AT&T service is not compelling enough to switch from Verizon, although the consultant acknowledged that AT&T will likely be willing to negotiate pricing.
In response to concerns, AT&T told TR Daily in a statement today that it plans to “continue to extend the coverage of FirstNet to provide first responders with access to the network whenever and wherever they need it, with the features they expect. Should AT&T have the honor to build all 56 RANs in the states and territories, we estimate that by combining our network with additional satellite technology, we’ll have over 99% of the population covered with LTE.”
As for cost, it said, “While base pricing was included in the State Plans, rates may vary for different agencies as there is no one-size-fits-all solution given that they each have unique needs and operations. It’s also important to note that we’re creating a highly competitive pricing structure that will drive more competition in the market for public safety, but we’re not competing on price. We’re competing on value. We’re giving public safety built-in access to feature-rich services that aren’t available anywhere else today, and we’ll continue to build on this and deliver even more mission-critical features and services as they become available.”
The company also said that state plans delivered in June “provided an in-depth look at the tailored solution we will bring to a state’s first responders. And we’re continuing to meet with states and territories to help address any questions they have as well as provide additional information as needed. On top of that, states and territories had until August 4 to share feedback with us, which we’re currently reviewing and addressing to ensure states and territories have all of the information they need to make a decision.”
FirstNet officials said that as they review input from states on the state plans, they are continuing to engage with states on concerns. During a session at the APCO show yesterday, David Buchanan, FirstNet’s director-consultation singled out California when discussing state consultation. Since state plans were delivered in June, there have been 18 FirstNet meetings with California representatives.
During a FirstNet town hall today, Mr. Buchanan noted that FirstNet has met with all 56 states and territories since the plans were delivered. Regarding the cost of AT&T services to first responders, he said AT&T has said there is a “ceiling price,” but that is “just the starting point” and that AT&T will discuss prices with opt-in states. He said FirstNet expects that AT&T’s “price is going to be extraordinarily competitive.” And he noted that 14 states or territories have opted in. During the town hall, FirstNet board member Kevin McGinnis said that FirstNet will be able to have “nation to nation” consultation with tribes once governors made decisions about FirstNet. That consultation has been restricted due to a requirement that consultation with states go through state single points of contact (SPOCs). Mr. McGinnis, the board’s tribal liaison, noted that there are 567 federally recognized tribes, saying, “It’s a lot of ground to cover.” —Paul Kirby, firstname.lastname@example.org