Urgent Matters

10 questions people want answered when FirstNet names its contractor

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While the critical-communications industry anxiously awaits FirstNet's unveiling of the contractor that will build its nationwide public-safety broadband network, here are some key questions that interested parties hope will be addressed when the announcement is made.

Thanksgiving is just two days away, and there still is no word when FirstNet will name its contractor or which of the bidding teams will emerge victorious. As each day passes, the likelihood of FirstNet making its announcement during the month of November—a goal of officials within the organization—continues to decrease.

And that is OK. FirstNet’s stated procurement timetable was a goal, not anything a hard deadline. While many are anxious for a decision—count me among that group—the bottom line is that a delay of a days or weeks is not a big deal. Five years from now, people will remember the 10 years it took to get to a procurement and the success (or failure) of the public-safety broadband deployment, not whether it took a few weeks longer than expected to complete the selection process and sign a contract.

Of course, that is not preventing the rumor mills from working overtime, fueled by speculation based on various readings of the few scraps of tea leaves that are public in this justifiably secret procurement process. There is no question that certain scenarios seem much more realistic than others, but who knows what is accurate—a lesson that the presidential election two weeks ago reminded prognosticators throughout the country.

But public safety has questions that it wants answered, no matter which team is chosen to build and operate FirstNet’s nationwide public-safety broadband network (NPSBN). Some are more likely than others to be answered when FirstNet makes its announcement, but here are some of the most notable queries:

  1. Who won? Everyone wants to know the winner, and this is the one question that will be answered when FirstNet makes its announcement (although the answer theoretically could be “nobody”). At the moment, all we know for certain is that there were three publicly confirmed bidding teams—led by AT&T, Rivada Networks and pdvWireless—and the pdvWireless team has been eliminated. Has the field been narrowed further? Are there other bidding teams in contention that have not been announced? It’s fun to speculate, but no one knows.
  2. Is the contract signed? Most public-safety people probably don’t think they care, but they should. All of the timetables—from the delivery of state plans to the various stages of deployment—are based on when the contract is signed. FirstNet officials have declined to respond to questions asking whether the contract will be signed at the time of the contractor announcement. If the announcement is made before a contract is signed, some fear that FirstNet would sacrifice negotiating leverage in the deal.
  3. Will there be protests and/or delays? It’s doubtful that this question can be answered at the time of the announcement, but quick clarity on this matter is important to everyone involved. Whether other bidding teams will contest the award has been the focus to date and could be known relatively soon, but whether the actions by states—a legal challenge to FirstNet’s opt-out legal interpretations or decisions to pursue the opt-out alternative—may be more significant and likely will not be known for months.
  4. How much will service cost? By a large margin, this is the most-asked question by public-safety representatives. If the price is not right, there is a definite risk that public safety won’t subscribe to FirstNet services, which would undermine the entire initiative.
  5. What is a ‘public-safety entity’? Prioritization and preemption are key features of the FirstNet system, but these characteristics are promised only to “public-safety entities.” It’s clear that EMS, fire, and law-enforcement agencies will qualify, but the RFP effectively lets the contractor decide which other groups will be treated as public-safety entities. This could impact the cost of services, as well as priority/preemption capability. Count utilities and non-public-safety departments within government enterprises among those that are anxiously awaiting the determination.
  6. Who do I call when stuff happens? One of the most imposing aspects of the FirstNet RFP was an operational chart with more than 600 boxes outlining various tasks and who should be responsible for executing them—the contractor, the public-safety customer or the FirstNet organization. Many expressed opinions, and it will be interesting to see which of these tasks the winning contractor wants to control.
  7. How will local control work? From the beginning, FirstNet officials have promised that public-safety entities will be able to exercise local control during emergencies, but the RFP does not dictate how that would be done. It is doubtful that this question will be answered fully at the time of the contractor announcement, but it will be interesting to learn whether a “starting point” for this critical characteristic will be revealed.
  8. How will cybersecurity be achieved? FirstNet’s promise of a secure network is paramount to its mission—without it, the system will not be used. But revealing enough information to make public-safety agencies comfortable about subscribing to the network while not unwittingly providing nefarious parties with clues to launch potential cyberattacks promises to be a delicate balance.
  9. How will FirstNet interface with 911? There is no question that FirstNet subscribers will be transmitting and receiving multimedia with 911 centers across the country, some of which use aging systems and others of which are on the cusp of next-generation 911. Ensuring that there is a secure, reliable connection between all types of public-safety answering points (PSAPs) and FirstNet public-safety subscribers is critical, and many want to know how it will be done.   
  10. What will happen to early-builder projects? More than $200 million has been spent on early-builder systems in California (LA-RICS), Texas (Harris County), Colorado (Adams County), New Jersey and New Mexico, but all of the systems operate on FirstNet’s 20 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum. Will these systems be integrated into the FirstNet system or shut down? No one wants to waste taxpayer dollars, but many industry observers question whether a FirstNet contractor will want to deal with the whims of local governments that own these systems.

Of course, this is not a comprehensive list. There are other questions that public-safety representatives will want answered quickly, and even more that cannot be addressed until well after the announcement—for instance, whether states will pursue the opt-out alternative, whether opt-out decisions will impact the economics of the agreement for the nationwide FirstNet contractor, and how effective FirstNet’s mission-critical push-to-talk (MCPTT) offering will be.

Whenever the announcement is made, there is no doubt that many are anxiously awaiting. Just knowing the answers to some of the above-mentioned questions promises to have a significant impact on the communications plans for traditional public safety and other critical-communications enterprises.

 

 

Discuss this Blog Entry 1

Bill Malone (not verified)
on Nov 28, 2016

I surmised what you meant about the so-called whims of local government and the successful bidder.

However a few facts unhinge your statement. State and Local governments will be the very same "whimsical" customers of the proposed NPSBN/FN/partner.
State and local governments are obligated to complete "due diligence" and if that is what FN or its partner consider to be whimsical then there will be problems.

The existing Early Builder projects are live and functional; FirstNet is not and no matter how it is explained away that fact remains. FirstNet has continued to not meet its own announced deadlines and hasn't built a single thing other than its own bureaucracy.
Mr. Poth's on going statements about "Getting it right for Public Safety" are wearing thin. The question is how competent is FirstNet?

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Donny Jackson is editor of Urgent Communications magazine. Before joining UC in 2002, he covered telecommunications for four years as a freelance writer and as news editor for Telephony magazine....
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