FirstNet Reviews Updated Strategic Plan

At a meeting featuring the first fully constituted board in two years, First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) officials today outlined the authority’s draft FirstNet 2.0 strategic plan governing its actions through 2022.

Among other actions at today’s meeting, an AT&T, Inc., executive complained that Verizon Communications, Inc., is misleading the public safety community in the way it markets its public safety core.

Today’s last quarterly meeting of 2018, which was also a joint meeting of the board’s four committees, was the first for Edward Horowitz as board chairman and the first for five new board members appointed in October (TR Daily, Oct. 31). In opening the meeting, which was held in a suburban Virginia hotel not far from FirstNet’s headquarters, Mr. Horowitz said he is “very proud” of the progress that AT&T, FirstNet’s network partner, has made in deploying the network. He then introduced each of the new board members.

“They all together, collectively, bring an extraordinarily diverse set of backgrounds and skills in the areas of public safety, telecommunications, business, technology, elective office, and military and public service,” said Mr. Horowitz, who has been reappointed to another board term. “It’s a pretty powerful group, and I know that we will have a robust dialogue when it comes time to make various decisions and recommendations.”

Mr. Horowitz also noted that Kathleen Kraninger has been replaced as the Office of Management and Budget’s designee on the board because she has been confirmed by the Senate to be director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The new OMB designee is Dana Wade, OMB’s program associate director-general government programs.

The board approved separate resolutions praising the service of former board members Sue Swenson, Jeff Johnson, Kevin McGinnis, and Annise Parker.

Board member Teri Takai said that Ms. Swenson and Mr. Johnson, the former chairwoman and vice chairman of the board, “helped form the culture of the board. … They have left us a legacy of how the board should operate.”

Board members also cited Mr. McGinnis’ work as the board’s tribal liaison and his representation of the EMS community on the board. Mr. McGinnis has joined the board’s Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC). Board member Paul Patrick will be the new tribal liaison on the board.

Acting FirstNet Chief Executive Officer Ed Parkinson and Jeremy Zollo, FirstNet’s director-Enterprise Strategy Division, discussed the draft strategic plan, which is to guide the authority’s actions through 2022. Mr. Parkinson stressed that FirstNet is still working on the plan within FirstNet and with the Department of Commerce.

Mr. Zollo said the plan’s mission is to be “a catalyst” for advancing the nationwide public safety broadband network, and not just be “idle.” The vision calls for FirstNet to “[c]reate a dedicated and differentiated” experience for first responders, their presentation said.

The strategy’s objectives are conveying a positive sentiment, ensuring a positive partnership with AT&T, recognizing differentiation, integrating FirstNet, and sustaining FirstNet’s organization.

The plan is designed to be based on metrics so FirstNet can determine if its goals are being met and it is supposed to be a document that is flexible and can be modified if necessary.

Mr. Parkinson also said that FirstNet plans to step up its outreach through new social media platforms while continuing its podcast and blog. He also said a website update is in the works.

David Buchanan, FirstNet’s executive director-public safety advocacy, described outreach that his team conducted during this year with individual public safety agencies and groups. He noted that its goal is to gather information about use cases and best practices and share them with others in public safety and with AT&T to ensure the network meets the needs of first responders.

Todd Early, the new chair of the PSAC, was not present at today’s meeting so Mr. Buchanan discussed his presentation. He said that Mr. Early is developing PSAC “strike teams” to provide to FirstNet “specific advice around specific topics.”

Mr. Parkinson said FirstNet will use the strike teams to gather input from public safety about the best places to invest funds that FirstNet receives from AT&T under its contract with the carrier. FirstNet plans to roll out its investment plan “in due course,” Mr. Parkinson said.

The board approved a resolution slightly modifying the charter of the PSAC to change the FirstNet point of contact to Mr. Buchanan’s position rather than the chief customer officer because that position no longer exists. The edits to the charter also reflect how FirstNet operates today, including its holding of meetings via webinar as well as in person, Mr. Horowitz said. The resolution also removed language regarding the PSAC’s role concerning state opt-ins, he said.

As is often the case at FirstNet meetings and other events, FirstNet officials repeatedly sought to emphasize what they say differentiates the network that AT&T is building from other offerings, such as Verizon’s public safety service, although they didn’t mention that carrier by name today.

“FirstNet is a dedicated and differentiated network, which is always on,” said Mr. Horowitz, who is also chairman of the Governance and Personnel Committee. “This is not a subset of anything. This is a separate network,” said board member Neil Cox, who has also been reappointed to the board and chairs the Technology Committee. “This is the fifth [national] wireless network in the U.S., and when this thing is completely built, it will be the largest.”

Jeff Bratcher, FirstNet’s chief technology and operations officer, noted the FirstNet applications and device ecosystems, with the latter now having more than 65 certified devices. Mr. Horowitz said that such certification “is a differentiator as well.”

For the first time, an AT&T official briefed the FirstNet board at one of its meetings.

In his presentation, Chris Sambar, AT&T’s senior vice president-FirstNet, said the carrier has hit all of its milestones either on time or ahead of schedule. AT&T is deploying Band 14 spectrum six months ahead of schedule, Mr. Sambar said, adding that about 30% of it has been built out.

He did not provide new network adoption figures, but he said they would be forthcoming soon. He noted that in October, AT&T said that it had more than 250,000 connections at more than 3,600 public safety agencies. He said 70% of the subscribers were new AT&T customers. “I believe that we will see this momentum continue and actually increase,” Mr. Sambar said.

Mr. Sambar also cited the success of AT&T’s Response Operations Group in coordinating responses this year to major events, including hurricanes Florence and Michael.

Mr. Sambar stressed that AT&T has deployed a “physically separate, dedicated core” and reiterated past criticism of Verizon’s marketing of its virtual public safety core (TR Daily, Aug. 7).

“I’ve been a little bit disappointed to see one of the other major carriers misleading public safety by saying they have a separate core when, in fact, it is actually their commercial core,” he said. “Because there is a significant distinction between the two, and we spent a significant amount of money, time, energy, and effort between the two organizations to build a separate core.”

He also complained that Verizon uses a black SIM card for its public safety devices, “which is a marketing gimmick.” He said AT&T also uses a black SIM card. “And so I find that fairly distasteful, it’s misleading,” Mr. Sambar added. “But nonetheless, we’re going to stay positive with our message in the market and make sure first responders understand what the differences are. But I would encourage everyone listening: hold your carrier accountable, make sure you understand the details of what the offerings are.”

In response to Mr. Sambar’s criticism today, Najuma Thorpe, a Verizon spokeswoman, told TR Daily, “Verizon doesn’t need to mislead anyone about our public safety offerings. We hold a more than 450,000 square mile network coverage advantage over our nearest competitor and have been partners with first responders for decades. Our Responder Private Core is part of our award winning 4G LTE network design and intelligently manages traffic between commercial and public safety customers. We believe choice is good for public safety and it’s driving new innovation and investment. And we’re leading the way to 5G, working with technology providers to develop innovative use cases for public safety.”

Mr. Sambar also noted that Verizon was criticized earlier this year after firefighters battling a wildfire in California found their Verizon service throttled.  “We don’t throttle on the FirstNet network,” he said. “I think that’s an important distinction for first responders to understand.”

In the wake of the controversy, Verizon announced that it planned to roll out an offering for public safety customers with “no caps on mobile usage” (TR Daily, Aug. 24). It also said that its practice is to “remove data speed restrictions when contacted in emergency situations” by emergency responders, and that its failure to do in this case was “a customer support mistake” (TR Daily, Aug. 21).

The next FirstNet board meeting is planned for March 2019 in Jackson, Miss., Mr. Horowitz said. —Paul Kirby,

Courtesy TRDaily