Responses from witnesses to follow-up questions from lawmakers in the wake of a Nov. 1 House hearing on the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) (TR Daily, Nov. 1, 2017) have finally been released, but an open government advocate noted the information comes too late to inform decisions by states and territories about whether to opt out of FirstNet. All 50 states, five territories, and the District of Columbia have opted in.
Stephen Whitaker, a Vermont resident and plaintiff in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit seeking FirstNet records, complained about “legislative dysfunction, evasive non-answers and waiting until the answers are ‘no longer germane,’ to quote [FirstNet Chief Executive Officer Mike] Poth, due to their not having been answered when due and while they might have impacted the opt-in/opt-out decisions.”
The House communications and technology subcommittee sent the follow-up questions to witnesses on Nov. 20 and asked for responses by Dec. 6. The responses were not posted until Monday night.
The responses of Chris Sambar, AT&T’s senior vice president-FirstNet, are dated Dec. 6. The responses of John Stevens, the statewide interoperability coordinator and FirstNet state point of contact (SPOC) for New Hampshire, are dated Dec. 4. The responses or Robert LeGrande II, founder of the Digital Divide LLC, are dated Dec. 18.
A committee spokesperson said that FirstNet’s response was received on Monday. “FirstNet has a lengthy review process that contributed to the delay in response,” the spokesperson said. “The process involves a number of government entities and interagency comments, including the Commerce Department, OMB, NOAA, NIST, and NTIA – which did not have a confirmed administrator until after the hearing.”
In a number of his answers, Mr. Poth said that opt-out provisions in a draft spectrum manager lease agreement (SMLA) that was delivered to states were “no longer germane” because all 50 states, five territories, and D.C. have opted in. The deadline for states, two of the territories, and D.C. to decide to opt out was Dec. 28. The three other three territories opted in earlier this month. Mr. Poth also said that while “some elements” of FirstNet’s 25-year contract with AT&T, Inc., “are considered public information, certain terms are protected by statute and regulation and accordingly will not be disclosed to the public.”
In his responses, Mr. Sambar refused to provide build-out specifics by state, such as California and Vermont, saying that it is important to keep build-out plans confidential “[f]or network security purposes,” although he offered to meet with lawmakers in their offices to discuss the issue.
Mr. Sambar was also asked by Rep. Peter Welch (D., Vt.) if he would “identify all personnel hired by AT&T since January 1, 2016, who had prior played any role whatsoever in any state’s consideration of FirstNet state plans or alternatives?” AT&T has hired a number of former state officials, including SPOCs.
“AT&T continues to bolster its public safety expertise, relying on individuals with relevant experience, subject to conflict of interest safeguards,” Mr. Sambar replied. “AT&T is committed to ensuring that those on the FirstNet team do not have any relevant conflicts of interest. AT&T will comply with all applicable federal or state statutes or rules, as well as any obligations in the FirstNet contract, concerning employment of former state employees. There are safeguards in place to address organizational conflicts of interest and we intend to abide by them. That said, AT&T has not hired any individuals while they were still employed by a state.”
Mr. Sambar also responded to multiple questions about why other network cores won’t be permitted to interconnect with the FirstNet core, saying that Congress mandated the deployment of a single public safety broadband network “because the introduction of multiple networks controlled by a multitude of carriers creates additional security risks, additional points of failure, and possible degradation of services offered over that network.”
He also would not directly answer questions about what percentage of AT&T’s existing and leased towers meet the “public safety grade” standard. “AT&T’s towers and sites are in full compliance with applicable laws as well as with the terms of the agreement between AT&T and FirstNet,” he said. “Any AT&T cell site towers and structures that will be built to support FirstNet will also be compliant with applicable laws an contract terms.”
In response to a question about how AT&T defines public safety grade, Mr. Sambar said that “AT&T is committed to public safety and to delivering a network engineered to meet first responders’ needs and [is] compliant with the requirements in its agreement with FirstNet that were based on guidance and efforts from many organizations, including NPSTC (National Public Safety Telecommunications Council), APCO (Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials), and PSAC (Public Safety Advisory Committee).”- Paul Kirby, email@example.com