With opt-in decisions in the rearview mirror, it’s time for public safety to do its homework
Now that all 50 states and most territories have made their “opt-in” decisions to accept the deployment plans from FirstNet and AT&T, it is time for the real work to begin.
For AT&T, that means augmenting its existing network with new sites that promise to extend coverage and expand system capacity, in accordance with the state plans—and all-important “incentive” packages—that governors accepted with their “opt-in” decisions.
For public-safety agencies and governments, that means assessing the FirstNet offering, determining its usefulness and deciding whether to subscribe to the new service in the short term. In addition, first-responder groups would be wise to begin determining criteria for making some potentially challenging long-term decisions regarding operational use of broadband data and possible adoption of broadband mission-critical voice.
There are many circumstances and scenarios to explore, but there are three key points that should be remembered at all times:
Public-safety agencies have no legal obligation to subscribe to FirstNet services.
It is still fairly common to hear those who have not been following FirstNet closely state an assumption that first-responder entities are required to use FirstNet—some even complain that it is an “unfunded mandate.” That’s simply not the case.
A key tenet of the legislation that established FirstNet was that public safety would not be obligated to use the proposed nationwide public-safety broadband network (NPSBN). Instead, it is the responsibility of FirstNet—and its contractor, AT&T—to provide an offering so compelling that it drives public-safety adoption of the system. Public-safety agencies have the option to subscribe to FirstNet, subscribe to another broadband provider, or decline to utilize mobile broadband services entirely.
FirstNet service is an immediate option. This may come as a surprise to some who have not followed the FirstNet saga during the past several months. Even a year ago, the public-safety community’s expectation for FirstNet deployment was that a nationwide contractor would be selected, governors would make their “opt-in/opt-out” decisions, and then the contractor would spend the next five years building the NPSBN that would solely utilize the 20 MHz of 700 MHz Band 14 spectrum that is licensed to FirstNet.
In other words, many public-safety officials figured that FirstNet would not be a realistic service with available devices until the network was almost fully deployed after 2020—and that was only if everything remained on schedule.
This expectation was completely understandable, because that’s what was called for in the FirstNet request for proposals (RFP) that was released in early 2016. And that is what AT&T and the other bidders included in their proposals.
However, after the FirstNet procurement was narrowed to one candidate—AT&T—in the fall of 2016, things changed dramatically. AT&T offered to give FirstNet public-safety subscribers access to the carrier’s entire network that utilizes more that 150 MHz of spectrum, instead of relying solely on the 20 MHz of Band 14 airwaves licensed to FirstNet.
Of course, no one in the public-safety community had any idea that this was happening, because the procurement process was not finalized until AT&T was awarded the nationwide FirstNet contract at the end of March 2017.
Whether the new AT&T approach is an improvement on the original Band 14-centric vision that public-safety officials fostered for years continues to be a topic for debate. But one key impact cannot be disputed: Instead of potentially waiting years for FirstNet service to be offered, public-safety agencies have the option of subscribing to FirstNet immediately while providing users with a healthy selection of devices. In fact, many already have signed a FirstNet agreement.
And the impact to public safety is not just limited to FirstNet/AT&T. Verizon has taken notice of FirstNet, and the carrier has promised to improve its public-safety broadband service by mirroring what AT&T is doing with FirstNet—notably, announcing plans to develop a public-safety LTE core network and provide first responders with preemptive access across its network.
“I’m not sure what we’re going to do (in terms of subscribing to FirstNet), but I think FirstNet is already a success, at least in one way,” one public-safety official said. “For years, I couldn’t get Verizon or AT&T to return my calls—even when I was their customer, and I’ve used both. Now, they’re fighting over my business and promising me things I never would have considered asking for in the past. That’s only happening because FirstNet exists.”
Public safety can feel comfortable making FirstNet-related investments, because the long-term viability of the network and organization are virtually assured.
FirstNet and AT&T have a 25-year agreement that gives AT&T access to the nationwide 20 MHz swath of 700 MHz spectrum that is licensed to FirstNet, as well as $6.5 billion in federal funding. In return, AT&T must build, maintain and upgrade the NPSBN for the next 25 years, and the carrier must make fixed payments to FirstNet that will ensure that the FirstNet organization has the revenue necessary to remain operational throughout the term of the contract.
In other words, FirstNet’s revenue stream for the next quarter century basically is assured, no matter how many public-safety agencies subscribe to the FirstNet service or how profitable—or unprofitable—providing public-safety broadband is to AT&T.
This is a big deal, as states that contemplated building the LTE radio access network (RAN) within their borders under the “opt-out” scenario ultimately realized. The risks inherent in the “do-it-yourself” model associated with the “opt-out” alternative were too great, when compared to the low-risk solution being proposed by FirstNet and AT&T, so all governors made an “opt-in” decision.
It’s an even bigger deal when you consider the key problem FirstNet overcame. Remember that, as soon as the ink was dry on the legislation that established FirstNet in 2012, doubts quickly emerged about the long-term economic viability of the federal public-safety-communications initiative.
Chief among these was funding. Congress earmarked $7 billion to fund FirstNet, but everyone agreed that was not nearly enough to build a nationwide LTE network—even the most conservative estimate said it would cost at least $12 billion, while others put the cost in the $45-70 billion range. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, FirstNet’s biggest proponent in Congress, indicated that more federal funds could be allocated to FirstNet in the future, but the political evolution on Capitol Hill quickly revealed that would not be the case.
To outside observers, FirstNet appeared to be a severely underfunded project. To be economically self-sustaining—a mandate in the legislation—many believed that FirstNet initially would be built only in densely populated areas that would allow it to generate revenues quickly, and the network would be expanded as these new revenues became available. In addition, many questioned whether device manufacturers would build devices for the relatively small U.S. public-safety market using Band 14.
Even if the network performed well, would public-safety agencies subscribe to a FirstNet broadband offering that was not nationwide and faced considerable uncertainty, in terms of long-term economic viability? Many believed they would not, based on coverage issues and/or the possibility of making a stranded investment.
But such fears are unwarranted today. FirstNet has a contractor in AT&T that has the financial and technical resources to deliver a public-safety broadband network, as well as provide the organization with a stable revenue stream for the next 25 years. FirstNet has done a great deal to ensure its long-term economic viability.
Instead, public safety’s decisions regarding FirstNet should be based on operational usage, affordability and network performance/coverage. To do that, public-safety entities—and the governments they represent—need to do their homework by gathering updated information and thoroughly review myriad factors that need to be considered in a significant communications decision.