States Request More Timely Federal Information in NTIA Opt-Out Comments
Tuesday, September 27, 2016 | Comments
Ten states, a Virginia county and the District of Columbia submitted comments to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) notice and request for comments regarding the State Alternative Plan Program (SAPP) and the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet). Concerns about the timing, additional information from federal entities overseeing the process, grant evaluation, transparency and other issues were raised in the comments.

NTIA's SAPP outlines the steps and potential timeline for states that choose to opt out of FirstNet.

The FCC should release information with its approval criteria for an alternative plan in a timely fashion, at least three months before draft state plans, said Pennsylvania in its comments. Likewise, NTIA should release criteria for decisions about radio access network (RAN) construction grants also at least three months before draft state plans are released, said several filings, including those from Fairfax County, Virginia, and Colorado.

“The district recommends the timely release of SAPP requirements and buildout funding levels in advance of the FirstNet draft state plan just as it recommends that FirstNet and its partner release RAN and other network policies in advance of the draft state plan,” said the District of Columbia. “States need critical and timely information to develop a realistic design, cost estimate and deployment schedule as part of an informed decision by their executive leaders.”

A lack of overall available information on opting out of FirstNet was a common theme throughout the majority of comments. “We are concerned by the absolute lack of hard information and defined guidance that is required for the states wishing to opt out to start planning or even evaluating their options,” Illinois said in its comments. “… We believe much more detailed information should be made available as soon as possible, far in advance of the state plans being delivered to the governors of individual states.”

Fairfax County also said an opt-out state should have more time to conduct a request for proposals (RFP). “Once the governor decides to opt out under the act, the state then must complete a procurement process for the state RAN within 180 days,” the county said. “We suggest, however, that FirstNet/NTIA provide interim approval of qualified state opt-out RAN plans if the state has not completed its procurement within the 180-day plan development period, as long as the overall plans meets the delivery requirements outlined in FirstNet's state opt-in plan.”

There is no apparent schedule for the FCC to approve interoperability criteria, the NTIA to approve financial demonstrations, or states to enter lease agreements or apply for RAN construction grants, said Michigan. “This further validates our concern that the states are not going to get the critical information required to develop a reasonably accurate design, cost estimate and deployment schedule in order to make an informed decision,” the Michigan comments said.

Pennsylvania and other filers also pushed for transparency with NTIA's funding and approval processes. To ensure transparency, Colorado said NTIA should following formal rulemaking procedures as defined by the Administrative Procedures Act (APA).

“States will not know the actual final grant award until after FirstNet and its partner know the states will opt-out - which by law may be up to 90 days after FirstNet issues its final state plans,” the District of Columbia comments said. “This places states in a position of making an opt-in/opt-out decision without having all required buildout funding information.”

Washington said NTIA must award grant of funds if the opt-out state makes the statutorily defined showing; NTIA has no authority to deny or reduce a grant of funds because of any “other factors.”

“We contend that the approval by the commission of its interoperability alternative state plan satisfies the need for the common technical network policies, and as such, there is no need for NTIA to require a duplicative and unneeded demonstration for grant funding,” Fairfax County said.

“We are also concerned about the potential RAN construction grants …” Illinois said. “It is unclear what the financial parameters of the grant are, i.e., how much funding is available, what the formula is for assigning funding amounts to various states, etc.”

“The act only calls for NTIA to receive, not be involved with, the approval of the spectrum lease with FirstNet,” said Alabama. “It does not stipulate that funding is provided only upon approval of the spectrum lease.”

California said FirstNet should release instructions for negotiating the spectrum capacity lease. “Over time, federal interpretations and instructions regarding the act appear to make it increasingly difficult for states to justify opting out of having FirstNet construct and operate a state's RAN.” California said. The state's comments list seven specific examples where the state said the notice makes it difficult to opt out. Indiana is concerned about NTIA's evaluation of an alternative plan and comparison to the state plan. “The guidance indicates that the state plan will be used as a basis for comparison to the SAPP as part of the evaluation,” Indiana's comments said. “Concern exists about the comparison of the two plans in key areas. For example, a state may wish to approach rural coverage differently given their knowledge of the state, creating the potential for an unbalanced evaluation.”

Alabama agreed that the state is best positioned to determine its own coverage priorities, particularly during the evaluation of “comparable” coverage.

Alabama said the opt-out partner should be free to use revenues for RAN operations, sales, marketing, and even profit if it can provide a solution that the state deems superior to the FirstNet plan and that satisfies the law's opt-out requirements.

Alabama released an RFP for an opt-out partner last week. The RFP said the state may retain any revenues generated by that network and reinvest them in constructing, maintaining, operating or improving the state public-safety broadband network.

In addition to the jurisdictions, the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) International, NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association and the National Association of CIOs (NASCIO) submitted comments.

APCO said it supports and agrees with NTIA's preliminary guidance concerning how a qualified state may apply to NTIA for authority to lease spectrum from FirstNet and receive a grant to construct its own RAN. The organization also reiterated its support for a nationwide RAN build by FirstNet.

“The state opt-out option is a false choice and likely will negatively impact the nationwide public-safety broadband network,” APCO said.

NTCA wants NTIA to require states to work with existing rural commercial assets. “NTIA should require an opt-out state to incorporate partnerships with rural telecommunications providers - those wireline and/or wireless network operators that are based in rural areas of the country and primarily serve rural customers - for a minimum of 15 percent of the wireline and wireless assets thus implicated by the state's proposed network strategy,” NTCA said.

For its part, NASCIO said that some of the information NTIA would require for an opt-out state is not within the purview of a state's executive branch leading the FirstNet effort but in the legislative branch. “We would still encourage the NTIA and FirstNet to share with states as much information as possible, as early as possible, especially information that could impact the amount of an opt-out state's RAN construction grant,” the filing said.

All 16 comment documents are here.

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