Jun 23 2017
Public Safety

States Explore Their Options as FirstNet Plans Emerge

Governors are on a deadline to opt in to the nationwide emergency-personnel communications system or find their own vendors elsewhere.

State plans for the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), a communications network for first responders and public safety officials built in conjunction with AT&T, are now in the hands of governors across the country.

The rapid state deployment plans, which include outlines of FirstNet’s coverage, features and mission-critical capabilities, were released to governors via an online portal on June 19. Governors now have 45 days to review the documents and exchange feedback before a three-month window begins in which they have to choose to either opt in to the plan or opt out and pursue their own.

“States, territories and public safety have expressed their desire to move quickly. That’s what we’re helping to enable today,” Chris Sambar, senior vice president of AT&T – FirstNet, said in a statement released in conjunction with the plans.

The plans have emerged just three months after AT&T was tapped as the provider for the network with a 25-year contract, an award that includes 20 megahertz of 700MHz band radio spectrum to operate the public safety network. When not in use for emergencies, however, AT&T can use it for commercial business, StateScoop reports.

The network aims to eliminate bottlenecks and congestion in internet and cellphone service that often occur during times of stress, giving emergency personnel communication priority.

“One thing I often talk about is when the Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl in 2014, we had a victory parade in downtown Seattle and the cellular networks were overloaded. This will fix that,” Bill Schrier, the FirstNet senior adviser and former CIO for the Seattle Police Department, told Government Technology.

Those that opt in to the network will be given access to the priority network, which will include LTE broadband coverage wherever possible. In areas where LTE is not yet available, AT&T will provide 3G or 4G service until it can fully upgrade the system to provide LTE across the country.

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States Begin to Look Elsewhere for Providers

While the telecom provider was given a six-month deadline after the partnership was announced to develop and distribute plans, AT&T dispensed the documents three months ahead of schedule, no doubt putting the pressure on states exploring outside providers.

At least five states issued requests for proposals to potentially opt out of FirstNet, including Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Michigan and New Hampshire, Government Technology reports. Further, New Hampshire has already selected another vendor.

These states appear to be looking for a communications solution for all their networks, not just for first responders. Colorado’s RFP, for example, looked to inject “creativity and innovation” into its potential network through another provider.

“We believe the full benefit of this network lies not only in providing a solution for first responders, but in enabling a comprehensive statewide critical communications infrastructure that can support multiple services,” said Brian Shepherd, point of contact at Colorado, after issuing the RFP, Government Technology reports.

Going it alone is never easy. Groups that support a more unified vision of FirstNet, such as APCO International, warn against fragmenting the network with more than one vendor. The group warns that opting out could subject states to a “near impossible” review process, introduce “sustainability risk through changes of administration, introduce unnecessary cybersecurity risks, and add cost and complexity to what is already a massive and highly complex project,” StateScoop reports.

"To opt out, when we look at it from a purely public safety communications perspective, we get very nervous, because the odds are really stacked against [states] in terms of relative resources compared to FirstNet," Jeff Cohen, APCO International’s chief legal counsel, told the site. "There's no safety valve if a state network fails.”

But Schrier tells Government Technology that in issuing their own RFPs, states are likely to gain a better understanding of exactly what it takes to stand up the network.

“An RFP can actually be a good thing for some states because it allows them to explore other options," he told the site. "The options are fairly onerous. AT&T will do this at no charge."


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