FORT WORTH, Texas – Two Rivada Networks LLC board members, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R.) and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D.), blasted the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) and AT&T, Inc., today, suggesting that they have engaged in “third-world thuggery” and a dictatorship in their efforts to convince states to opt in and allow AT&T to build their radio access networks (RANs) as part of a nationwide public safety broadband network.
During a question-and-answer session this morning at the Competitive Carriers Association’s Annual Convention here, Messrs. Bush and O’Malley echoed complaints that Rivada executives often level against FirstNet and AT&T, FirstNet’s network partner – including that there has been a lack of transparency and accountability, resulting in many crucial details being kept secret, including exact coverage and fees and penalties that states could face if they seek to opt out and then change their minds.
Rivada lost out to AT&T for the 25-year FirstNet contract, and it is trying to convince states to opt out of the network and allow the company to build their RANs. Under the company’s business model, Rivada, using a dynamic spectrum arbitrage system, would monetize spectrum for commercial use when it is not being used by first responders.
Messrs. Bush and O’Malley suggested that states that opt in would not have any control of the network, and they said that all governors should at least issue request for proposals (RFPs) to explore their options, including partnering with Rivada.
The Rivada board members complained that states are not permitted to discuss the contents of their state plans or draft spectrum management lease agreements (SMLAs), which include the termination penalties and other fees. However, some states have.
So far, 25 states and two territories have opted in. Governors have until Dec. 28 to make a decision whether to opt out.
During today’s session, questioner Steve Berry, president and chief executive officer of CCA, also criticized FirstNet and AT&T and asked questions friendly to Rivada. He complained that under the FirstNet/AT&T contract, rural carriers will lose out on the chance to partner in the network, despite the fact that the law that created FirstNet included language on rural partnerships. States should explore their options – whether to build out on their own “or to go with the pig in the poke that AT&T, the sole designated federal monopoly, is telling us about,” Mr. O’Malley said.
The former governors repeatedly complained that FirstNet and AT&T are operating in an opaque way that would run counter to sunshine requirements at the state level. “I couldn’t have gotten away with this sort of third-world thuggery that we’re seeing from FirstNet on this deal,” Mr. O’Malley said, drawing laughter. “I mean, with all due respect to our neighbors in the third world.”
“At the state level … we don’t have this kind of secrecy,” Mr. Bush said. “Sometimes, I wish we did. It’d be a lot more fun to be a dictator.”
Both Rivada board members called for additional congressional oversight hearings.
The House communications and technology subcommittee plans to hold a Nov. 1 hearing on state perspectives on FirstNet. It is scheduled to start at 10:15 a.m. in Room 2322 of the Rayburn House Office Building.
“Nationwide interoperability for our first responders has been a long time coming, and it’s critical for their sake and the public’s that we get this right. As next week’s hearing demonstrates, we are committed to monitoring FirstNet’s progress to ensure it brings modern communications capabilities to the brave men and women who keep us safe,” said Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R., Tenn.), chairman of the subcommittee. “It’s vital that we deliver on a system that our firefighters, police officers, EMTs, and all those on the frontlines of public safety can rely on.”
The former governors, who also were candidates in last year’s presidential election, also stressed that choosing Rivada would enable states to see revenue sharing, which would provide funds that could go back into the public safety network. States also could benefit economically from greater overall broadband deployment, including in rural areas, they said. They also emphasized that Rivada plans to partner with rural carriers in the initiative.
“And that’s why it’s so important that states retain control over that and not just toss it to the sole designated monopoly for the next 25 years on a song,” Mr. O’Malley said. He also suggested that FirstNet has essentially “become an appendage of AT&T.”
Opting out will give states additional time to consider their options and ask questions of FirstNet and AT&T, Mr. Bush said. He said states have yet to get answers to their questions “because it goes into the … black hole of Washington, D.C., where’s there’s no sunshine, no transparency, no accountability. This process has been hidden from congressional oversight, and it’s been hidden from the people who truly matter, which are the first responders in all of our communities.”
He also suggested that the termination penalty, which could run into the billions of dollars for some states that opt out and then seek to opt in, “is so onerous that no one could legitimately opt out.” Some state officials have also criticized the penalty, as well as other fees. “Opening this process up to allow for proper negotiation will force the federal government to get its part right,” Mr. Bush said.
Mr. Berry asked how states will know that innovation will occur with FirstNet. Mr. O’Malley said states won’t, but he said they would if they contract themselves with a vendor. “You have no guarantee with what’s currently being shoved down people’s throats with AT&T,” he said.
Mr. O’Malley was asked by a reporter after the session why he compared FirstNet to thugs. “Because they’re threatening to … charge states that don’t go along with their sole-source monopoly plan with huge … penalties and fees, which have no precedent in the laws of the United States of America or in the Constitution,” he replied. “It is outrageous.”
“I think Congress is going to have something to say about that,” he added. He was also asked to respond to the fact that some of the opaque provisions criticized by Rivada, including that FirstNet is exempt from the Administrative Procedures Act, were approved by Congress. “I think some members of Congress are probably going to have second thoughts about exempting them from that,” he said.
He was also asked whether people will only see his criticisms of FirstNet and AT&T as self-interest given his position with Rivada. “Clearly, I’m on the board, clearly I have something to gain from Rivada being successful and winning as many states as possible, as does Gov. Bush,” he replied.
In response to the remarks of Messrs. Bush and O’Malley today, a FirstNet spokesman said, “It’s unfortunate that some feel the need to resort to name calling instead of having a substantive conversation on the communications needs of our nation’s first responders. FirstNet, however, remains focused on public safety. We look forward to working with our partners in the states and territories as we have done for several years to ensure the successful and speedy deployment of the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network – opt in or opt out – in the coming months.”
Asked for comment on the argument that too much of the FirstNet process is secret, the spokesman said, “We have been providing the states with the information they need to make an informed decision, as requested, and welcome the opportunity to meet with them to discuss these and other issues.”
In its statement, AT&T said, “These are more baseless statements from members of Rivada’s board. This isn’t news.”
Mr. Bush drew laughs when he said during this morning’s session that he didn’t want to anger AT&T. “I’m an AT&T client. I’m not the guy bashing AT&T,” he said. “I don’t want to lose my cellphone service.”
“I’m Verizon,” Mr. O’Malley responded. —Paul Kirby, email@example.com