DENVER – Current and former state and other public safety officials, consultants, and others said today they are generally pleased with Verizon Communications, Inc.’s announcement that it plans to offer priority service and preemption to public safety customers while building a dedicated public safety core (TR Daily, Aug. 15). However, concerns about interoperability and other issues were raised.
“I am excited to see the announcement from Verizon,” said Red Grasso, the First Responder Network Authority single point of contact (SPOC) for North Carolina and deputy director of FirstNetNC in the North Carolina Department of Information Technology. “I think the FirstNet effort has been a tremendous catalyst for bringing Public Safety to the forefront of the wireless broadband industry. Competition for public safety customers is a win for the community. I feel that conversations about the Governors’ decision to Opt-In/Opt-Out should be separate from conversations around adoption of the FirstNet service since there is no mandate to use the network.”
Mr. Grasso added, “Regardless of the Opt-In/Opt-Out decision, the Public Safety community in every state should expect offerings from all of the major carriers who want to compete. This is why it is so important that interoperability discussions remain network neutral. This is why the public safety applications should remain network neutral and multi-platform.”
The offerings by Verizon will give states more bargaining power when negotiating with FirstNet, some people said, and may prompt AT&T, Inc., FirstNet’s network partner, to improve its offerings. Many public safety officials and front-line first responders prefer Verizon’s network over AT&T’s, saying that its coverage is better and more reliable. They also say that Verizon’s pricing is competitive. However, some said that the additional competition could prompt AT&T to bolster its offerings. Verizon made its official announcement today while the public safety community was gathered at the APCO 2017 show here.
“I absolutely see this as a strong negotiating chip,” a state official said. “It will be interesting to see if FirstNet will allow a direct linkage to the FirstNet core at some point in the interest of public safety. I’m sure that is a question the legal team will make bank on. I have heard substantial comment regarding lack of AT&T coverage so perhaps this will encourage them to take the comments more seriously. I don’t know how this will affect a State’s decision to opt-in or if there will be renegotiation of agreements but it certainly is a good bargaining chip.”
“Given the way AT&T/FirstNet have chosen to implement the national public safety broadband network I do believe Verizon’s announcement will offer jurisdictions additional options and much needed competition,” another state official agreed. “I think states will integrate this into their overall opt-in/out decision.”
“Although Verizon currently offers generally better coverage than AT&T in much of the nation, AT&T has promised to, and will undoubtedly, correct that over the next few years and the coverage argument is expected to no longer exist,” a former public safety official suggested. “Coverage and cost are competitive issues and AT&T will need to compete on cost with Verizon if they are to convince the public safety community to become customers of FirstNet/AT&T. How that plays out remains to be seen.”
But the former official also suggested that whether a state opts in or opts out of the FirstNet system “has little to do with the announcement by Verizon. The best deal for states continues to be opt-in where they will get the RAN [radio access network] build out and maintenance for 25 years by FirstNet/AT&T.”
“I think competition is good,” said a public safety consultant, adding that having AT&T and Verizon “duke it out” for public safety customers “is a win for public safety.” Another state official agreed with the consultant and said that Verizon’s announcement was not “unexpected.”
“This shows you the power of competition,” said another observer. “Verizon, which never took FirstNet seriously and did not participate in the RFP process, is now offering public safety what it said it never would: preemption. The one thing it cannot offer, however, is FirstNet service. Saying that it will provide a public safety core is misleading, because Verizon’s core will not be FirstNet’s core.
“I do think Verizon will provide competitive pressure on both AT&T and FirstNet,” the observer added. “In fact, through the consultation process FirstNet heard that public safety would expect pricing to be equal to what they paid for the existing devices, so Verizon has been putting pressure on FirstNet already by the mere fact that it already has many public safety customers.”
“On the surface, having the other major carrier agree to provide an alternative to AT&T’s solution sounds like a good way to assure competition on pricing. I know some States today enjoy better coverage on Verizon’s network then they do on AT&T’s, but I also know AT&T has met with each State and committed to provide the coverage they need on a schedule with milestones and penalties for not getting there,” said Ray Lehr, a consultant and former public safety official in Maryland who is on the unpaid advisory board of the Keeping America Safe coalition, which receives support from AT&T and backs FirstNet.
“Verizon didn’t step up to those requirements during the RFP period but now they see an opportunity to compete under their terms. I’m concerned that their attempt to build State RANs and a separate core could jeopardize nationwide operability,” Mr. Lehr added. “Operability means all public safety is on one network so they share the same features, capabilities, devices and network software version. If there is more than one core we have to go back to interoperability between two or more cores.”
“And frankly, it seems unfair that Verizon chose not to compete when there was a RFP out because they didn’t like the terms and conditions (and commitment to make payments to FirstNet for operation, maintenance and upgrades) but now they show up after the award and say ‘we’re committed to public safety.’ Where was that commitment two years ago?” Mr. Lehr asked.
He also noted that as part of its contract with FirstNet, “AT&T has committed to milestones for rural coverage in every State. There is not profit in doing that for a single State, only when it’s amortized across the whole country. So profits from high volume areas can support the build-out in rural areas. What happens to rural area coverage if Verizon lands two of the most profitable States?”
FirstNet also issued a statement today on Verizon’s announcement, one day after FirstNet board Chairwoman Sue Swenson urged first responders to consider the “totality” of any plan (TR Daily, Aug. 15).
FirstNet said in its statement that it “has consulted closely with public safety as a partner to develop this network. Thanks to their input, we are now delivering first responders a compelling network solution they’ve never had before – which includes true priority today – and we will deliver them ruthless preemption, a dedicated and encrypted public safety core network with local control capabilities, a dedicated FirstNet Public Safety Security Operations Center and public safety grade customer care. These services are unmatched and unique to public safety, and that is why we are seeing so much momentum with the FirstNet Network in the states and territories.”
Rivada Networks LLC, which led a consortium that lost out to AT&T for the FirstNet contract, also commented on the Verizon announcement. Brian Carney, Rivada’s senior vice president-corporate communications, said, “Verizon’s announcement is a reminder that states should not be bullied into opting in early. There are real alternatives to the model FirstNet has chosen. We expect some of the states that have opted in early may now reconsider in light of this news. Rivada looks forward to competing against all comers.”
In an interview with TR Daily today, Michael Maiorana, SVP-public sector for Verizon, said his company believes it can meet all of the needs of public safety entities. In particular, he was asked to respond to the fact that AT&T will operate things such as an apps store, a security infrastructure, a dedicated public safety technical support operation, and dedicated deployable equipment. “Verizon has a 100% commitment to provide public safety with the products, networks, services, and support they need to do their job, and our track record over the past two decades has developed for us a significant market share in this segment. There’s nothing in any of things that you said that we won’t be able to execute,” Mr. Maiorana replied.
He said that Verizon has about 60% of the public safety communications market, adding, that “past performance is a major indicator or driver of future business in this segment.”
“This really is a statement or a stake in the ground that we’re making to our customers that we’re going to make the investment necessary to give them the best possible products, services, network capabilities,” Mr. Maiorana added. Mr. Maiorana also said that Verizon plans to deploy its public safety core next year, although he didn’t go into more detail, saying that will come “towards the end of the year.” Under its contract with FirstNet, AT&T plans to deploy its public safety core in March 2018.
Mr. Maiorana said that Verizon is “not promoting opt out” by states. However, Verizon has responded to several state requests for proposals (RFPs) for the development of alternative plans if they decide to opt out, said Kevin King, a Verizon spokesman. “States make their own decision to opt-in, opt-out, create an RFP, etc.,” he said. “We’re not advocating a position there. We stand ready to support our public safety customers.”
Asked why Verizon did not submit a proposal in response to FirstNet’s RFP, Mr. King replied, “The FirstNet RFP was essentially structured as a spectrum deal: a commercial partner agrees to build and operate a network in exchange for spectrum. We chose not to bid because we were not interested in commercializing FirstNet’s spectrum, and we simply didn’t have a need for it on a nationwide basis.” —Paul Kirby, firstname.lastname@example.org