If a governor decides to pursue the “opt-out” alternative, the state or territory must select a vendor to build the alternative RAN within its borders, have its plan approved by the FCC and the NTIA, and sign a spectrum-lease agreement with FirstNet. Only after completing these tasks—expected to take a year or two—would a state be considered an “opt-out” state and be allowed to begin constructing its alternative RAN.

But clearing these hurdles does not mark the end of oversight for an “opt-out” state. NTIA will oversee the state’s use of construction-grant funds to ensure that the money is spent appropriately, according to FirstNet Chief Counsel Jason Karp. More important, FirstNet will take measures to ensure that the alternative RAN in an opt-out state works seamlessly with all features and functionalities that are available on the rest of the nationwide network, as dictated by FirstNet’s network policies.

For example, this obligation means that an “opt-out” state or territory must ensure that its alternative RAN is upgraded at the same time as the nationwide FirstNet system for the next 25 years. In addition, the alternative RAN must meet FirstNet’s requirements for cybersecurity at all times.

If an “opt-out” state is not able to deliver an alternative RAN that meets these requirements throughout the next 25 years, then FirstNet will need to take actions to address the situation, Johnson said.

“You have to remember, our focus has always been—and will be—nationwide interoperability,” Johnson said. “So, if a state goes down that path, and they initially pursue the opt-out and they’re into year 3 or 4, and they realize that it’s not working … then we do have provisions where we would—and it sounds kind of overbearing—come in and help them and possibly have to take over.

“But it’s very complicated. We would be working with the state, NTIA and with the public-safety people in that state to try to unravel where they’re at, at that point in time, to then get them back into being successful. We’re not going to let them [‘opt-out’ states] just flounder.”

Johnson said this notion that FirstNet must ensure interoperability throughout the nation—in “opt-out” states, as well as “opt-in” states—was a key part of the law that created FirstNet in 2012.

“It may feel like this is some bureaucratic overreach … but it’s not that at all—public safety has asked for this from our first days of our legislative request,” Johnson said. “This generation of public-safety professionals has lived with this hodge-podge of independent systems, and we wanted no exit ramp that didn’t create one, ubiquitous, fully operable system nationwide. We wanted to stitch up every possible hole in the fabric that could create independent and fractured systems again.

“So, the fact that this is a rigorous [process] and that there are remedies, that comes right out of the genetic strain from public safety saying, ‘Whatever we do, we’re not doing this again.’”