FirstNet Officials Stress Benefits of AT&T Subscribership

First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) officials today continued to tout what they said are the benefits to public safety of subscribing to their network being built by AT&T, Inc., drawing an implicit comparison with the public safety offering of Verizon Communications, Inc. At a meeting in Little Rock, Ark., today, the FirstNet board also approved changes to its bylaws and to its committee charters, received updates on AT&T’s network and FirstNet’s outreach plans, and was briefed on the establishment of an investment review process to spend funds that FirstNet receives from AT&T under a 25-year contract.

At today’s meeting, FirstNet staff and board members repeatedly praised AT&T for the work the carrier has done to fulfill – and even go beyond – the terms of its contract, which was signed nearly one year ago (TR Daily, March 30, 2017). “I believe AT&T’s being very aggressive about building those [coverage] commitments out just as soon as possible. Even though we have multiple years, they’re going to move very, very quickly to get that coverage out there to meet the expectations,” FirstNet board Chairwoman Sue Swenson said.

Echoing comments made by AT&T executives, Ms. Swenson also put in a plug for AT&T’s current coverage, which some in the public safety complain compares unfavorably to Verizon’s network. “All carriers, frankly, have pluses and minuses in terms of where they work well and where they don’t,” she said. “People, I think, have been pleasantly surprised with … the coverage and capability that AT&T has today … and that will only improve with the plans that have been committed to the states.”

FirstNet Network Management and Operations Officer Rich Reed said that AT&T is “accelerating their build” ahead of what it committed to in the contract with FirstNet.

AT&T has said that it expects most of its initial construction will be completed in less than four years, even though it has five years to complete initial operating capability.

Mr. Reed also said that AT&T plans to roll out the first 24 of an eventual 72 deployables by the end of this month, which is “ahead of schedule.” He also said that users of the early FirstNet builders were being transitioned to AT&T or a service of their choice, and he said that the projects had to cease Band 14 transmissions by July 1.

FirstNet officials also repeatedly noted that AT&T’s public safety core is being deployed by the end of this month. Verizon has said its public safety core will be deployed in the same timeframe.

“Extensive and exhausting testing” is being done by FirstNet on the AT&T core, said Jeff Bratcher, FirstNet’s chief technology officer.

“No other core is being subjected to that willingly or voluntarily,” said FirstNet Chief Executive Officer Mike Poth.

Mr. Bratcher also noted that public safety traffic will be separated from commercial traffic on AT&T’s network with the dedicated core.

David Buchanan, FirstNet’s director-consultation, noted that AT&T says that it now has 30,000 connections from more than 350 agencies in 40 states on its FirstNet system. “That’s a really promising sign,” he said.

Board Vice Chairman Jeff Johnson said that agencies that sign up with AT&T would be able to save money on their wireless service compared to using other carriers.

Also during today’s meeting, the FirstNet board approved changes to its bylaws as well as to the charters of its four committees to enable the panels to update their activities with FirstNet’s role changing since AT&T has begun deploying the network.

An amendment to the FirstNet bylaws says the board chair shall designate a member of a committee to be the chair and shall appoint its members. “All committee members shall serve at the pleasure of the Board Chair for such term or terms as the Board may determine and may be replaced by the Board Chair, notwithstanding such term or terms, at any time,” according to a FirstNet slide used at today’s meeting. “The Committee Chair shall serve at the pleasure of the Board Chair and may be replaced by the Board Chair at any time[.]”

An amendment to the charter of the Governance and Personnel Committee lets the chair of the committee recommend members, who would also be appointed by the chair of the FirstNet board and serve at the board chair’s pleasure.

Ms. Swenson chairs that committee and suggested that the changes regarding committees would streamline the process for appointing members.

The board also agreed to change the name of its Consultation and Outreach Committee to the Public Safety Advocacy Committee. The change reflects the modified charter, which was approved because FirstNet will no longer focus on statutorily mandated consultation with states ahead of the release of state plans. Instead, it will focus on advocating for public safety through education and collaboration and working to influence AT&T and the marketplace for successful FirstNet deployment.

The board also reappointed Neil Cox as chair of the Technology Committee and named Ed Horowitz to take over as chair of the Finance Committee. He replaces James Douglas, who was not reappointed to the FirstNet board.

FirstNet Chief Financial Officer Kim Farington explained that the investment review process is designed to effectively spend FirstNet funds, including ensuring that spending is aligned with FirstNet’s strategic goals.

AT&T expects FirstNet to reinvest into the network about $15 billion of the $18 billion that AT&T has to pay FirstNet over the 25-year length of its contract.  Shortly after the 25-year contract was announced last year, Mr. Poth said that FirstNet would reinvest about $16 billion of the $18 billion it gets from AT&T into the network in rural areas (TR Daily, April 6, 2017). The precise reinvestment amount has yet to be determined, a FirstNet spokesman said today.

Ms. Farington also said that FirstNet received its fifth consecutive “clean” audit opinion and said that the last audit-related open management-level finding was closed. “We have the cleanest audit opinion you can possibly have,” she said. The management-level finding that was closed “related to the controls over the maintenance of supporting documentation in the official personnel files that support payroll expenses,” according to Ms. Farington’s slide presentation.  She also announced that FirstNet was able to recover $3.1 million in funds that weren’t spent previously and can be used in the future.

At today’s meeting, representatives of the Bay, Ark., Fire and Police departments spoke, praising the benefits of FirstNet to their agencies.

Also, the board adopted a resolution thanking the three former board members. They also welcomed the three new board members. And they adopted a resolution honoring Tom Sorley, the former chair of FirstNet’s Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC) who died recently (TR Daily, Feb. 5), with the Harlin R. McEwen Award. Mr. Sorley’s wife and children accepted the award.- Paul Kirby, paul.kirby@wolterskluwer.com

Courtesy TRDaily