Vermont today became the 34th state or territory to announce that it will opt into the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), despite concerns about whether such a decision represents the best option for the state. “It is important that Vermont’s first responders have the best service and access to an interoperable network that is expected to advance and adapt with new technology through the next 25 years,” said Gov. Phil Scott (R.). “Vermont faced the choice of building its own network or using the federal solution. After thoroughly considering the technological, financial and operational aspects of both options, I believe the federal plan will more quickly and sustainably provide our public safety community with the network it needs to continue its valuable service to Vermont.”
A news release noted that the decision announced today “follows the recommendation [the governor] received earlier this month from Vermont’s Public Safety Broadband Network Commission (PSBC), which recommended Vermont opt-in to the federal plan [TR Daily, Nov. 20]. The commission considered the federal plan and a proposal from an alternative vendor submitted through an RFP process. In its recommendation, the PSBC focused on service, coverage and risks of both options.”
“Today’s opt-in decision means that FirstNet/AT&T can begin work immediately in Vermont,” said PSBC Chair Terry LaValley, who is the state’s FirstNet single point of contact (SPOC). “Due to the all-bands approach by AT&T, first responders will have immediate access to all bandwidth owned and operated by AT&T in Vermont, including priority calling. AT&T will also use funds allocated to FirstNet to increase the number of cell sites in Vermont within the next five years — many in areas where first responders currently lack good coverage.”
Vermont is the 32nd state, in addition to two territories, to decide to have AT&T, Inc., FirstNet’s network partner, build its radio access network (RAN). It is the eighth state to opt in after issuing a request for proposals (RFP). Governors have until Dec. 28 to make opt-out decisions.
A draft spectrum manager lease agreement (SMLA) delivered to Vermont by FirstNet said that the state could have to pay up to $173 million if it opted out and then terminated the lease with the federal government to use the FirstNet spectrum.
But at a Nov. 1 House hearing, FirstNet Chief Executive Officer Mike Poth stressed that FirstNet will work to “minimize” the impact on states and first responders of opt-out states that fail to fulfill the terms of SMLAs. He also said that the agreements provided to states are only “working draft” documents.
The news release issued by Gov. Scott’s office today noted that “Televate, a technical consultant hired by the PSBC to evaluate the plan, recommended that Vermont opt-in. An independent review by the Coeur Business Group, which was contracted by the Agency of Digital Services to analyze the opt-in/opt-out options, also recommended opt-in. An evaluation of the financial risks conducted by the State Treasurer’s Office expressed significant concerns regarding the financial consequences to the state and its future borrowing capacity in the event of an election to opt-out.”
“Governor Scott’s decision is a win-win-win for the state, its public safety community, and everyone who lives, works or visits in Vermont,” said FirstNet board member and former Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas. “The FirstNet Network will modernize our emergency communications infrastructure, help create jobs in the Green Mountain State and ensure that our first responders have the best tools and technologies to keep our communities safe and secure.”
“I’d like to thank Governor Scott for his leadership and commitment to public safety, which is clear and unwavering. Opting in to FirstNet puts Vermont’s first responders on the cutting edge of innovative communications, helping them operate faster, safer and more effectively when lives are on the line,” said Patricia Jacobs, president of AT&T New England. “Vermont’s first responders, residents and visitors, alike, will all benefit from the FirstNet solution, which won’t cost the state a dime to build, operate or maintain.”
But Stephen Whitaker, a Vermont resident and open government advocate who is a party in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit seeking FirstNet records (TR Daily, Oct. 6), criticized Gov. Scott’s decision today.
“I just think it was a preemptive strike to try to defuse the legislative authority,” he told TR Daily. “I think it was a dirty trick.”
He noted that a Vermont legislative counsel said in a recent memo to a state legislator that state lawmakers have a right to review the governor’s decision on whether to opt in or out of FirstNet (TR Daily, Nov. 27). He also said that a decision should be delayed until FirstNet, AT&T, and others respond to questions posed by Rep. Peter Welch (D., Vt.) in the wake of the recent House hearing, which they are expected to do next week.
In prepared remarks for a meeting on FirstNet today of the Vermont House Energy and Technology Committee, Mr. Whitaker complained that the FirstNet review process by the state, like FirstNet’s and AT&T’s processes nationally, had been secretive.
“The absurdity of this game of whack-a-mole with secrets when we are evaluating life and death communications seems to have no end absent legislative action,” he said. —Paul Kirby, firstname.lastname@example.org