Urgent Matters

Unanswered questions loom as governors prepare to make ‘opt-in/opt-out’ FirstNet choices

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Most governors have until Dec. 28 to make their "opt-in/opt-out" choices regarding FirstNet. Considerable information about FirstNet is available, but several key data points that could impact a governor's decision remain unknown as the 90-day decision clock ticks.

Last week, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) released its construction-grant funding level determinations (FLD) to accompany the FirstNet state plans that were distributed the previous week. As a of last Friday, governors in 50 states and three territories will have 90 days to make their “opt-in/opt-out” decisions—a deadline of Dec. 28.

While the potential timing of the governors’ deadline may be less than ideal for those trying to take a winter vacation, the timeline cited in the law that created FirstNet is straightforward. What is less clear is whether governors will have all of the information they need to decide whether to “opt in”—accepting the FirstNet state plan and let AT&T build and maintain the LTE radio access network within the state’s borders—or pursue the “opt-out” alternative, which would make the state or territory responsible for RAN deployment and maintenance for the next 25 years.

FirstNet Vice Chairman Jeff Johnson has stated for years that governors and other state officials should not be surprised by anything they see in the official state plans that were released last week. From the outside, it seems that FirstNet has kept this promise: the contents of the official state plans incorporate state input gathered during years of consultation and a 45-day comment period after the initial state plans were released in June.

Indeed, we’ve learned a lot about FirstNet during this past year, including:

FirstNet is real—right now: This was known months ago, but it is important to remember that, even a year ago, many questioned whether: (1) FirstNet would ever happen; (2) it would have limited coverage; and (3) it would be self-sustaining or be a federal initiative that would go broke after a few years.

Even the harshest FirstNet critics have to acknowledge that this network is happening, the coverage will be nationwide (in terms of population coverage) and the deal is structured to ensure that FirstNet can operate for the next 25 years, including technology upgrades. Providing public safety with this assurance arguably is FirstNet’s greatest success to date.

In addition, public safety won’t have to wait five years before FirstNet is available, as many who read the FirstNet request for proposals (RFP) feared. With nationwide contractor AT&T providing FirstNet services across its entire commercial network operating in several spectrum bands, public-safety agencies in “opt-in” states already are making the switch to FirstNet subscription packages.

FirstNet is not a Band 14-centric system: This was a shock to the system for many public-safety representatives, particularly those that spent years on Capitol Hill advocating that Congress reallocated the 700 MHz D Block spectrum—now part of the Band 14 spectrum licensed to FirstNet—to public safety for broadband use.

AT&T’s change was a surprise, because the FirstNet nationwide RFP reflected the notion that the public-safety LTE network would operate primarily on Band 14. By all accounts, AT&T’s original bid fit the Band 14-centric model, but the telecom giant offered a different plan last fall, apparently after it was the lone remaining bidder being considered for FirstNet’s nationwide award.

AT&T decided to offer FirstNet services across its entire network, allowing first responders to have prioritized and preemptive access across a system that leverages about 170 MHz of total spectrum, compared to the 20 MHz that is licensed to FirstNet. This shift changed perspectives in many ways, as we will see later.

Some critics have called the AT&T move a “bait-and-switch” tactic and question whether a commercial network can be hardened in a manner that will meet public safety’s reliability needs.

Meanwhile, proponents of the plan note that public safety will be able to adopt FirstNet services sooner, as opposed to having to wait for the Band 14 device ecosystem to mature. In addition, the approach provides additional service flexibility and means that public safety will have a clear path to 5G—maybe 6G and 7G—services that may be developed outside of the 700 MHz band in the future.

Many states and territories make early “opt-in” decisions: So far, governors in 22 states and two of the three territories that received initial state plans have announced “opt-in” decisions, which means AT&T will be building and operating the FirstNet LTE radio access network (RAN) within the borders of these states/territories. However, it should be noted that an “opt-in” decision by a state does not obligate any public-safety agency to subscribe to FirstNet.

Verizon plans to fight for its public-safety customers: In August, Verizon vowed to establish a public-safety LTE core next year, as well as offer the priority and preemption that AT&T will provide to FirstNet subscribers. Virginia officials said one reason they made an early “opt-in” decision was to get the competition started in the state as quickly as possible.

Other notable items: We’ve also learned some other interesting facts about FirstNet, including the following:

  • Opt-out states will get access to all 20 MHz of Band 14 spectrum, according to NTIA. This is a contrast to some speculation that was spread within the Beltway. Then again, now that FirstNet is not a Band 14-centric network, this may not be as significant as some thought initially.
  • AT&T cannot get out of its FirstNet contract, according to an AT&T spokesperson. This debunks another myth that was spread for a long time—that there was an clause in the deal that would let AT&T “escape” from its FirstNet deployment obligations, if too many states achieved “opt-out” status.
  • FirstNet intends to take network policies seriously. State are allowed to pursue the “opt-out” alternative and build the RAN themselves, but they must be prepared to upgrade the network at the same time as AT&T makes upgrades on a nationwide basis to ensure seamless interoperability for users, according to FirstNet and NTIA officials.

Discuss this Blog Entry 3

Wilfredo Miranda (not verified)
on Oct 4, 2017

I haven’t see a single article stating the vulnerability of FirstNet given what happened to AT&T and others in Puerto Rico in lieu of Hurricane Maria. Reciliancy was NOT there.

on Oct 4, 2017

The Opt-Out issue for Governors really boils down to two questions:
What business are they in, governance or telecom?
How much risk are they willing to take to compete with existing carriers and wireless providers?

It's pretty clear what the sane answers are.

Burch Falkner (not verified)
on Oct 7, 2017

I understand in my home state of Alabama that our Governor could announce her decision as early as next week. She has been very transparent by requesting input from committees and agencies throughout the State. That is commendable. What is questionable is how can a decision be made when all the facts are not known.

It now appears that Band 14 may never actually be used unless AT&T just needs more bandwidth in major urban areas. The rural areas will likely be served by what is available currently. So what is the benefit of FirstNet? I have a portable network radio right now that costs less than $250 for the equipment and under $20 per month with unlimited nationwide PTT, active GPS, cloud message storage, and a whole bunch of talkgroups. So what is it that FirstNet can do that isn't already commercially available and what does it cost? Who knows?
I don't!

And what business does government have in telecom? Government has yet to figure out how to manage itself, and now Government is going to succeed in private enterprise? What basis do we use to arrive at this conclusion? And whatever happened to that grand idea of building a "hardened" system that would continue to work when others fail. An now we learn that we are using the same network? Something is very wrong with this picture!

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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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