Webinar panel outlines the financial challenges facing FirstNet
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Initial discussions indicate that there is an interest in such a model from investors willing to fund the network and from operators wanting to access the excess bandwidth from FirstNet, Moore said. And, even if the worst-case scenario becomes reality—the DSA provider goes bankrupt—public safety still would have an operational network, he said.
“The idea is that the network gets built,” Moore said. “You have, in effect, a public utility. The collateral for the debt is not the spectrum—that is absolutely not the case and never could be. It cannot be the infrastructure. Then, you ask, what is the collateral for this large amount of debt? It’s the right to arbitrage the spectrum, within the rules of public safety and FirstNet. And that, in and of itself, is worth much more than what the debt is ultimately going to be.
“The good news is that the network gets built, and it’s functioning. And, as in the case of any utility that would go bankrupt, it doesn’t shut down. PG&E here in California, when it went bankrupt, it didn’t shut down. They reorganized and were able to refinance it. You have people who are willing and understand the value of the secondary use of spectrum, and they’re willing to bet on us to make sure that it works.
“It removes the risk for FirstNet—the spectrum’s not at risk, and the infrastructure’s not at risk. That’s the key: get it built and not have the risk on FirstNet.”
Regardless of what kind of partnership model is adopted, it is important that the FirstNet board remember that serving public safety is the key mission, said consultant Robert LeGrande, who expressed concern that some partnership proposals may “overcommercialize” the network, particularly in urban areas where public safety is more likely to need all available bandwidth.
LeGrande said that is important that FirstNet “build to the budget” established by Congress to ensure that the network is sustainable. In addition, any new wrinkles being considered need to be tested thoroughly before being incorporated into a system being used by public safety, he said.
“We have to make sure that we can [make] all of these innovations [operational],” LeGrande said. “I’m thrilled that Rivada has built this opportunity for us to leverage [excess FirstNet bandwidth], but I’m really advising a very cautious and a very careful approach to introducing it into the public-safety community.”
In rural areas, there is less chance that all bandwidth will be needed by first responders. That could create opportunities to provide high-speed connectivity to consumers in order to meet another policy objective from Congress, Moore said.
“If we bring this out to those networks, we can wholesale it to the larger carriers, and they can come in and serve these communities that otherwise wouldn’t have broadband service,” he said. “So, there’s a public-policy piece to this that is really important that people really haven’t talked about.”