FCC Finalizes Criteria for Considering Alternative State FirstNet Plans

The FCC today released an order that finalizes the technical criteria that the agency will use when considering alternative plans by states that seek to opt out of having AT&T, Inc., the First Responder Network Authority’s (FirstNet) network partner, build radio access networks (RANs) that will be part of the nationwide system. In the order, the FCC agreed with FirstNet, AT&T, Rivada Networks LLC, and others on particular points.

The item in PS docket 16-269 follows up on an order that the Commission unanimously adopted in June that established procedures for reviewing alternative plans for interoperability (TR Daily, June 22). The FCC in that order directed the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau to seek comment on a proposed interoperability compliance matrix that FirstNet had filed late in the agency’s proceeding.

The order released today noted that section 6302(e)(3)(C)(i) of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, which established FirstNet, “provides that states making a timely opt-out decision shall ‘submit an alternative plan for the construction, maintenance, operation, and improvements of the radio access network within the State to the Commission, and such plan shall demonstrate—(I) that the State will be in compliance with the minimum technical interoperability requirements developed under section 6203 [of the Act]; and (II) interoperability with the nationwide public safety broadband network.’ We refer to these requirements herein as ‘Prong 1’ and ‘Prong 2’ respectively.”

“In a June 5, 2017 ex parte filing, FirstNet filed a spreadsheet listing ‘FCC Evaluation Requirements’ associated with specific elements of its anticipated state plan categories. FirstNet stated that the spreadsheet represents an ‘interoperability compliance matrix that documents the technical standards that will be necessary to ensure a state or territory’s [Radio Access Network (RAN)] is interoperable with the [Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN)].’ On June 16, 2017, FirstNet filed an additional ex parte letter in which it proffered a revised interoperability compliance matrix. In the revised matrix, FirstNet proposed that the Commission’s review under the second statutory prong be limited to whether alternative state plans comply with recommended requirements [4] and [5] from the [FCC’s] Interoperability Board Report,” the FCC noted in the order. “These recommendations apply to the use of Access Point Names or APNs. Recommended requirement [4] states that ‘[h]ardware and software systems comprising the NPSBN SHALL support APNs defined for PSAN [Public Safety Application Network] usage.’ Recommended requirement [5] states that ‘[h]ardware and software systems comprising the NPSBN SHALL support nationwide APNs for interoperability.’”

In response to a public notice seeking comment on the interoperability matrix, FirstNet and AT&T urged the FCC to endorse it, while other parties raised some concerns about it, or at least said that the FCC’s review of alternative state plans will overlap with that of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (TR Daily, July 18).

“We conclude that our review under Prong 2 should be limited to determining whether alternative state plans comply with recommended requirements [4] and [5] from the Interoperability Board Report,” the FCC said. “Several commenters concur that utilizing these requirements will satisfy the Commission’s interoperability finding under Prong 2. In this respect, we also find that these requirements are consistent with industry standards for LTE deployment, resulting in an understandable and achievable benchmark. Moreover, no party disputes FirstNet’s arguments or proposes a viable alternative standard for use under this prong in response to FirstNet’s proposal. We also agree with AT&T that operation of FirstNet’s national network will entail the use of several kinds of APNs (e.g., general, specific, custom, emergency) applicable to numerous kinds of functionalities (e.g., network data services; public internet access; IP Multimedia Subsystems (IMS) such as Voice over LTE (VoLTE) and IP messaging; E911; access to enterprise intranets).

“However, we disagree with AT&T’s contention that opt-out states should be limited to using the same APNs as FirstNet to comply with Requirements [4] and [5],” the order added. “We believe that such a requirement would be unnecessarily restrictive. While we conclude that an opt-out state must include the set of APNs that FirstNet defines or requires, AT&T fails to show how restricting the an opt-out state’s set of APNs to the exact set of APNs that FirstNet employs, and precluding the use of other APNs, is relevant to Prong 2 or would enhance interoperability.”

The FCC also said it concurred “with Rivada that our Prong 2 review should be limited to the criteria listed in the column of FirstNet’s revised matrix labeled as ‘FCC Evaluation Requirements,’ and that information contained in the column labeled ‘NPSBN RFP J-4 Interface Reference’ is reference information only, rather than additional criteria for Commission evaluation. We will therefore only adopt Requirements [4] and [5] as our Prong 2 standard for review, and our adoption extends only to the Board requirements, as enumerated in each prong, not the matrices, which are reference material. In this respect, we anticipate that there are a variety of commercially standard and reasonable ways that a state alternative plan could satisfactorily demonstrate that it will meet the interoperability standard established for Prong 2.”

The order added, “Lastly, we address the argument raised by SouthernLinc that the matrices filed by FirstNet, and the associated Public Notice issued by the Bureau, are so vague as to fail to provide adequate notice under the Administrative Procedure Act. We find that SouthernLinc’s argument lacks merit.” The FCC also said that entities responding to the public notice raised several issues that are outside the scope of the order released today. For example, it noted that several parties continue to “argue that opt-out states should be allowed to construct their own network cores, and that, technologically speaking such cores are capable of directly connecting to FirstNet’s core. They argue that a direct state RAN to FirstNet core connection is not required, and ask the Commission to endorse this view. In the Report and Order, the Commission stated that while it would not reject an otherwise qualified alternative plan that includes a proposed state core, the issue of state use of a separate core falls outside the Commission’s statutory interoperability review responsibility. Similarly, the feasibility of direct state core to FirstNet core connection raised by the above parties lies outside the scope of our review. Therefore, we decline to revisit this issue at this time. We also emphasize again that while issues relating to separate state cores are outside the scope of our authority, this does not preclude the separate consideration of such issues by NTIA or FirstNet within the scope of their respective authorities.”

The order also noted that the FirstNet Colorado Governing Body said “that as a condition precedent to making an interoperability determination regarding a state’s alternative plan, the Commission must first make a determination that AT&T meets the Interoperability Board’s minimum technical requirements. Specifically, FNCGB ‘requests that the Commission specify how it will ensure that AT&T complies with the interoperability requirements so that it is held to the same standard as opt-out states.’ Because the [Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation] Act makes no provision for the Commission to undertake such an evaluation, we decline to adopt such a review.”

The FCC also observed that the Competitive Carriers Association “argues that AT&T has the incentive and ability to enter into proprietary device arrangements that could prevent states from obtaining opt-out approval or could force states to agree to unreasonable or discriminatory terms in contracts for equipment. CCA urges the Commission to act in this proceeding to prevent FirstNet, AT&T, and its equipment vendors from implementing proprietary device standards or otherwise limiting device operability in a manner that would create ‘an insurmountable opt-out condition based on states’ compliance with proprietary technical standards or equipment.’ We find that this issue falls outside the scope of our statutory duties regarding RAN interoperability, and so decline to address it here.”

In a statement, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said, “As communities devastated by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma begin the hard work of rebuilding, our work at the Commission to promote public safety continues. With today’s Order, we take another step towards the creation of a nationwide interoperable public safety broadband network. Specifically, we finalize the technical criteria the Commission will use to evaluate plans from those states that elect to opt-out of the network that will be deployed by the First Responder Network Authority.”

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement that she is pleased that the order “clarifies for those who exercise their right to opt-out of this system the standard that the Commission will employ to ensure that a state or territory’s radio access network is fully interoperable. This Order represents my first recorded vote as a returning Commissioner and reflects my deeply rooted belief that the first duty of the public servant is the public safety.”

FirstNet said today that it “is pleased with the final order and thanks the FCC for taking another important step toward ensuring that interoperability of the Network.”

“We are gratified that the FCC has listened to all sides in this rule making and are satisfied that they’ve arrived at an even handed and fair minded rule,” said Brian Carney, senior vice president-corporate communications for Rivada. AT&T had no immediate comment.- Paul Kirby, paul.kirby@wolterskluwer.com

Courtesy TRDaily