States Deserve a Complete Picture in Evaluating FirstNet/AT&T Coverage Plans
By Al Catalano
Monday, July 17, 2017 | Comments

The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) in March selected AT&T as its partner to build, operate and maintain the nationwide public-safety broadband network “NPSBN). With AT&T leading the charge, network development appears to be on a fast track. In early June, the initial AT&T/FirstNet radio access network (RAN) or coverage plans were made available electronically to all 50 states, the District of Columbia and territories of the United States. After a brief period for review, comment and consultations, the plans will be finalized and the governor of each state must decide whether to accept the FirstNet plan or to seek an alternative coverage model through the state’s own request for proposals (RFP) process.

In evaluating its options, the goal of every state should be to obtain the best possible network coverage for its first responders. The safety of first responders and the public must be the primary concern in evaluating the AT&T/FirstNet plan. To conduct a reasonably thorough examination, the governors and their teams must have access to the necessary financial, technical and legal information regarding AT&T’s commitments to deliver the NPSBN.

However, the states currently face a major obstacle in conducting their analysis. They do not have access to the underlying contract between AT&T and FirstNet. There have been numerous trade press reports and FirstNet/AT&T presentations about what the AT&T proposed rollout will entail — access to the entire AT&T network, public-safety usage targets, priority and preemption. However, no one from a state government is privy to the specific terms of the FirstNet/AT&T agreement. As with most agreements, the “devil is in the details,” but the states cannot access the details.

There are countless issues involved in the review of state plans that turn on the conditions of the underlying FirstNet/AT&T contract. For example, how much of the statutory requirement for rural coverage can be satisfied through deployables as opposed to permanent hardened infrastructure under the terms of the contract? What is the specific long-term commitment to support discounted pricing for public-safety use? Is there a mechanism in place to resolve any disputes that may arise between FirstNet and AT&T?

A fundamental question is whether there is an option for AT&T to opt-out of the contract with FirstNet if it fails to obtain a certain number of states opting in or for any other reason. Another basic issue pertains to the penalties that AT&T may have to pay if it fails to meet certain levels of public-safety use or adoption on the network. Without firsthand knowledge of the AT&T/FirstNet agreement, there is no way of knowing with certainty if there are caveats or conditions that could limit such a requirement? What happens to the spectrum if there is zero public-safety adoption in a given area or insufficient adoption on a nationwide basis? These are significant questions to which states are entitled to an answer.

For AT&T and FirstNet to simply address these and other critical questions an on ad hoc basis is not a prudent approach. The only way for a full evaluation of whether the needs and objectives of public safety are being met is for FirstNet and AT&T to disclose the underlying contract to the states so that they can examine the specific terms of the agreement.

As things now stand, a governor is being asked to accept a vendor to build and operate the public-safety network within his or her state — impacting the lives of first responders and the public — without firsthand knowledge of the terms under which AT&T will provide the service. FirstNet and AT&T should disclose the terms of their contract pursuant to an appropriately drafted nondisclosure agreement so the governors and their teams will have a complete picture in reviewing the FirstNet/AT&T coverage plans.

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Al Catalano is a counsel with Keller and Heckman. He has more than 30 years of experience in telecommunications regulatory and legislative matters, domestic and international joint ventures, litigation and transactions involving communications, properties and investments. He represents states and other entities in matters related to the buildout of the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) nationwide public-safety broadband network.

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