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Some key questions that potential bidders want answered in FirstNet’s RFP

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FirstNet has not released its request for proposal (RFP) yet, but here are some of the items that potential bidders hope will be addressed in the procurement document.

FirstNet supposedly will announce the release date of its request for proposal (RFP) at any moment—in fact, most industry observers thought it would have happened already, because FirstNet officials have said the RFP would be issued during the first half of this month, which would mean by the end of next week.

But the exact timing of the release is not as important as the RFP’s content, even for potential bidders like AT&T and Rivada Networks that publicly have expressed interest in the FirstNet opportunity. Although FirstNet deserves credit for getting this RFP out largely on schedule, last month’s board meeting was noticeably short on several bid-related details that could have a significant impact on the number of potential bidders (or bidding teams, most likely) and the quality of their offerings.

Some of this is by design. From the outset, FirstNet officials have made it clear that this would be an objectives-oriented procurement. If bidders can meet the statement of objectives in deploying a nationwide broadband network for public safety while staying within the parameters established by Congress in 2012, FirstNet wants them to submit a proposal. This is no easy task, and FirstNet officials have made it clear that they want to give bidders as much latitude as possible.

Of course, some guidance is needed, and potential bidders—as well other stakeholders, such as states and public-safety agencies—are anxiously seeking answers. Some of the key questions that bidders would like the RFP to address include:

Who will be the primary users of the network? FirstNet has conducted two public-notice proceedings to get input on the definition of a public-safety entity that would be eligible to have prioritized access on the network. So far, FirstNet has not released its legal interpretation of what a public-safety entity is, but it has indicated that it will be a broad definition.

Police, fire and EMS agencies are no-brainers, and the expectation is that those subscribers will use the FirstNet system all of the time. But things get complicated when considering critical-infrastructure entities—for instance, utilities, governments and healthcare facilities—that can play a key role in public safety at times, but they also have communications needs outside of the public-safety realm.

FirstNet does not want non-public-safety traffic to have prioritized access to its network, and the carriers do not want to lose prized enterprise customers entirely. It’s arguable whether the RFP should dictate a “middle ground”—FirstNet wants to give bidders latitude—but it’s clear that finding a solution to this dilemma is crucial to the long-term success of the FirstNet initiative. The answer not only promises to impact the business model of the winning bidder, but it also could affect other commercial service providers.

How will priority/preemption work between public-safety users and secondary commercial customers? A fundamental premise of the FirstNet business model is that the winning bidder will be able to monetize spectrum/network assets when they are not being utilized by public safety. There is little doubt that this is technically possible—commercial carriers have announced priority-service offerings already—but exactly how priority and preemption would be implemented has not been determined.

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Donny Jackson

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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