AT&T FirstNet Exec Criticizes Verizon, State Contract Delays

LAS VEGAS – The AT&T, Inc., executive in charge of building out a nationwide public safety broadband network for the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) said that Verizon Communications, Inc., is “misleading public safety” in the way it describes its public safety broadband offering and criticized some states that haven’t agreed to complete contract vehicles for purchasing FirstNet service.

During an interview with TR Daily late afternoon in conjunction with the APCO 2018 show here, Chris Sambar, AT&T’s senior vice president-FirstNet, suggested that there are “inconsistences” concerning how Verizon sells its public safety offering, for which it has built a virtual public safety core.

“Verizon is purposely obfuscating the difference between a virtual and a dedicated core,” he said. He said that while AT&T offers “always-on preemption,” public safety entities have told AT&T that Verizon has said its preemption involves wireless priority service (WPS), which is a voice offering, and at times has said preemption is offered today while other times has said it would be offered later this year.

“I don’t understand why they are misleading public safety,” Mr. Sambar added. “We’re being very clear about what we’re offering.”

In response to Mr. Sambar’s comment, Verizon spokesperson Najuma Thorpe said today, “Verizon has earned the trust of public safety organizations by providing industry leading network reliability and mission-critical responses to help agencies deliver when it matters most. Verizon’s Public Safety Private Core is part of its leading 4G LTE network that intelligently manages traffic between commercial and public safety customers. Verizon also provides always-on priority and preemption services to first responders, and that is currently available today. Whether our first responders have a smartphone, or data only device, they can get access to these services from Verizon.” 

Mr. Sambar also said there are still a “handful” of states where no state contract vehicles are in place to purchase FirstNet service. He said that while states originally wanted to see pricing for plans, now discussions have centered on other terms and conditions.

“Honestly, it’s a little disappointing to see that it’s taking so long in some of these states because all we’re trying to do is sell to their users if they want to buy FirstNet service, and the fact that they won’t give us a contract vehicle is a little bit concerning,” he said. “In some cases, some of the requests that [states] have are outside of the spirit and the letter of what the FirstNet program is designed to do.”

“The FirstNet Authority set this whole thing up such that they would manage the vendor and hold us accountable,” he added. “They didn’t want us to be held accountable contractually in 50 states and territories. They wanted to do it.”

“Some states are trying to go back on that now and they’re trying to manage us,” Mr. Sambar added. “The FirstNet Authority is the entity managing this contract.”

He was asked if the state of California, where a state contract vehicle is not yet in place, is an example of a state that is trying to manage FirstNet. He said it is.

In response to Mr. Sambar’s comment, Pat Mallon, California’s FirstNet state point of contact (SPOC) and assistant director-public safety communications in the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES), told TR Daily, “I think it is difficult to expect any entity, federal or not, to appropriately represent the interests of individual States and Territories.  This nation is too diverse in topography, density and special needs to force every State into an identical, fits all, box. While AT&T might benefit from this approach, it would be at the expense of the States.”

Mr. Sambar also said he remains pleased with the success AT&T has had in deploying the network and signing up subscribers.

Nearly 1,500 public safety agencies in 52 states and territories have signed, accounting for more than 110,000 FirstNet connections, according to AT&T. More than 2,500 cell sites have Band 14 across 40-plus states and territories, and 10,000 more are in process. AT&T plans to have Band 14 installed in about 15,000 sites by the end of this year.

AT&T goal was to attract “users across the gamut,” Mr. Sambar said. “We wanted federal, state, local, police, fire, EMS. But we also wanted the extended public safety: department of transportation, utilities. We also wanted … individual firefighters, volunteers, [and] individual police. …. We wanted across-the-board subscribers, and that’s exactly what we’re seeing. We’re getting a little bit of everything, and it’s all coming up at once. … It would have been a problem if we had only seen small pockets adopting.”

Despite the fact that AT&T and FirstNet are touting the benefits to public safety of the carrier’s offering, some public safety officials still complain that AT&T’s coverage in many areas is still lacking when compared to that of Verizon.

Mr. Sambar acknowledged that it will take time to beef up coverage everywhere it is necessary.

“We’re building aggressively, but it takes time,” he said. “FirstNet wasn’t built in a day.”

Moreover, a vendor had a problem delivering to AT&T deployable equipment when expected, although Mr. Sambar said the carrier will still meet its deadline to be able to activate 72 dedicated FirstNet deployable assets by next month. In the meantime, AT&T has used deployable equipment already in stock at the company and responded to emergencies with other solutions.

Mr. Sambar also hailed AT&T’s response operations program, which is designed to ensure there is a more coordinated response to customers, which was not always the case during the 2017 hurricane season.

One way AT&T is doing that is by designating employees to directly liaison with states to ensure relationships are in place when a disaster strikes. “They have a direct line to us, [which] they’ve never had in the past,” Mr. Sambar said.

As part of the response operations program, AT&T yesterday announced plans to deploy portable emergency “drop kits” that “will envelop first responders in a 300-foot ‘connected bubble,’ letting them maintain constant communication to better coordinate their response” during emergencies in rural and remote areas, and when communications are not available, such as in the wake of wildfires and hurricanes (TR Daily, Aug. 6).

Mr. Sambar was asked whether a consent decree recently announced with the FCC in which AT&T agreed to pay $5.25 million to settle an FCC investigation into two 911 outages last year (TR Daily, June 28) could hurt the carrier’s credibility with the public safety community.

“Probably, but I think it depends on how we respond and what we learn from it,” Mr. Sambar replied. “Because everyone makes mistakes. It’s how you recover from the mistakes. And I think in that case, the FCC was happy with our response.” —Paul Kirby, paul.kirby@wolterskluwer.com

Courtesy TRDaily