FirstNet Opt-Out Challenges and Partnership Opportunities
Wednesday, April 23, 2014 | Comments

The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) must create a compelling product to get states to opt in to use the nationwide public-safety broadband network. However, opting out is not as simple as passing on the opportunity.

After the initial FirstNet steps, including outreach and state consultations, it will be the governor’s decision whether a state should opt in to FirstNet or opt out and build its own radio access network (RAN).

If a state opts out, it must tell FirstNet and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) of its decision and within 180 days put out requests for proposals (RFPs), said Anna Gomez, partner at Wiley Rein LLP, who previously worked on the State and Local Implementation Grant Program (SLIGP) as the deputy administrator at NTIA. From there, the state must show the FCC that its planned network will comply with the minimum technical requirements. The FCC must approve the state plan, although the commission has no timeline to do so, she said.

After that, the state must apply to NTIA for grant of authority to lease the spectrum from FirstNet. And finally, once the state deploys its network, it still must pay FirstNet a portion of user fees, because opting out only allows the state to use its own RAN. All states will still operate on the FirstNet core(s), she said.

With the hurdles of opting out numerous, the benefits of opting in should be enticing. However, without knowing the cost to build and maintain the network, some are skeptical of the affordability of the network.

“Ohio is cantankerous of FirstNet, but optimistic,” said Darryl Anderson, Ohio Department of Administrative Services. “We want FirstNet to understand that FirstNet works for us.”

Harris County, Texas, began spectrum lease negotiations with FirstNet in April 2013 for its Long Term Evolution (LTE) network and is still negotiating. And before the negotiations could begin, the state presented nine versions of interoperability showings before the FCC approved one, said Todd Early, deputy assistant director, Public Safety Communications Bureau for the Texas Department of Public Safety.

The required outreach, which includes data gathering, explaining how the network will be used and why it is needed, as well as what’s in it for each jurisdiction, is a large undertaking, said Early. “You have to put options on the desk of the governor and ensure that you have buy in and understand the vast differences across the state,” he said.

Cost will be a big determinate of whether FirstNet is successful and has local buy in. Early said some Texas jurisdictions have bake sales just to buy radios, so any new costs must be close to what they’re paying today.

The partnership details will have a big impact on the network costs. “Partnering is part of the FirstNet mandate,” said Art Katz, principal, Katz Law Office. The network must become self-supporting, which will come from user fees and revenue fees, he said. Collaboration could include leasing spectrum, build/maintain/operation agreements, co-location of public-safety network assets on commercial towers or carrier premises, and nationwide roaming on carrier networks, he said.

“FirstNet has $7 billion for a network estimated to cost anywhere from $15 billion to $60 billion, so capital is obviously a concern,” Katz said.

The legislation is written in a way that will allow for secondary use of the spectrum, said Chuck Dowd, assistant chief, New York City Police Department and FirstNet board member. “There are many models for how that could happen,” he said. “We’re studying different models, and one of the goals is to always maximize the value of secondary use on that spectrum.”

Use of commercial, utility and public-safety infrastructure is being considered. “There are a lot of roads to Rome,” Dowd said. “We are not looking to exclude anybody and certainly that includes utilities.”

Utilities’ mission-critical communications systems are ultra reliable, with backup power and redundant networks, said Brett Kilbourne, vice president and director of government and industry affairs, Utilities Telecom Council (UTC). “Our missions are complementary,” he said. “We’re both out there trying to restore power and maintain communications.”

Currently utilities have disparate systems and mostly narrowband wireless communications systems with no dedicated spectrum, Kilbourne said. They largely use spectrum that is shared with other industrial/business (I/B) users, which creates congestion and potential interference, and there are interoperability issues between different systems. The narrowband systems lack sufficient capacity for the smart grid, especially from a data standpoint, which makes the FirstNet spectrum look ideal, he said.

Unfortunately utilities have not been thought of first and foremost as a potential FirstNet partner, but that seems to be changing, especially in rural areas where utilities can help with coverage and capacity, Kilbourne said. “We think there’s a very doable partnership here with limited pre-emption situations, and understanding our needs to share this network and build it out together,” he said.

“Utilities become a critical element,” said Jeffrey Johnson, CEO, Western Fire Chiefs Association and FirstNet board member. “I don’t think you’ll see FirstNet take any action that will exclude them — those decisions will be made closer to home.”

States appear to be the primary point of entry, and that reception has been fairly positive, said Kilbourne. “We want access to spectrum, but we’re not going to sign our lives away,” he said. “There will need some sort of prioritization, especially during emergencies.”

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