Senate Hearing on FirstNet Focuses on Rural Coverage, Cybersecurity
Thursday, July 20, 2017 | Comments
Rural coverage, physical security and cybersecurity, and integration with next-generation technologies dominated much of the discussion during a hearing on the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) held by the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation and the Internet July 20.

During the hearing, AT&T Senior Vice President Chris Sambar, who is leading the company’s FirstNet team, and FirstNet CEO Michael Poth fielded questions about a variety of issues related to the nationwide public-safety network (NPSBN).

The subcommittee also heard from Curtis Brown, chief deputy state coordinator at the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, on the state’s decision to opt in to FirstNet and Dr. Damon Darsay, an assistant professor at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, on the benefits FirstNet will bring to healthcare and EMS services. Mark Goldstein, physical issues director for the Government Accountability Office (GAO), also briefly detailed the GAO’s most recent report on FirstNet, which was released the same day as the hearing.

Sen. Maggie Hassan, New Hampshire, noted that her state has many rural areas where obtaining adequate coverage is tough and asked how states could hold FirstNet and AT&T accountable for ensuring that coverage is available in those areas.

Poth responded that the plan provided to each state is a commitment to that state and that FirstNet will hold AT&T accountable to meeting that commitment under the contract for the nationwide network.

When questioned further by Subcommittee Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker, Mississippi, Poth said that the state plan does not represent a legally binding contract between the state and FirstNet and AT&T, but states can hold AT&T accountable by providing feedback to FirstNet and FirstNet will hold AT&T accountable under the master contract for the network.

Sambar added that AT&T has been traveling and talking to the state officials and has heard about the importance of rural coverage.

“We have heard that rural coverage is a concern and we are embarking on an aggressive plan to build out rural areas that aren’t covered,” Sambar said. “There are some areas that will never have coverage from a radio access network (RAN), but we are going to be doing our best to build out rural coverage.”

Deployables will play a role in some rural coverage, Sambar added. AT&T plans to add 72 deployables dedicated to FirstNet that will help with coverage in tough areas and during emergencies.

Another area of concern for many senators was both physical security and cybersecurity of the network.

In terms of cybersecurity, Sambar outlined several measures AT&T is taking to protect the network, including:
• Certifying all devices that will be used on the network;
• Building a separate evolved packet core (EPC) for FirstNet, meaning that first responders’ data will be entirely separate from other users on the network;
• Building a security operations center specifically for FirstNet that will monitor for and address security threats; and
• Identity credential and access management (ICAM) to keep anyone with bad intentions off the network.

Poth also told the committee that FirstNet would routinely have cybersecurity experts perform inspections and audits to ensure the network is properly secured.

In terms of physical security and hardening, Sambar told the subcommittee that AT&T builds its towers to federal and state standards to withstand disasters such as tornadoes and earthquakes. In cases where towers do go down, the company will use its deployables to maintain coverage, he said.

“There will always be instances where towers get knocked down,” Sambar said. “The solution is these deployables that will have a very short response time.”

Darsay told the committee that he had seen the effectiveness of deployables during emergency situations throughout his work in Mississippi.

New and evolving technologies such as next-generation 9-1-1 (NG 9-1-1) and indoor location accuracy were also on the minds of several senators.

Sen. Ed Markey, Massachusetts, spoke about the importance of indoor location accuracy in saving lives and asked when those capabilities might be available on the FirstNet network.

Under the FirstNet contract, indoor location accuracy solutions need to be in place on the network by 2020, Poth said. When Markey expressed concern about such a distant implementation date, Poth and Sambar said that AT&T and FirstNet are currently looking at the technology, but it is not mature or reliable enough at this point.

“There is technology that exists today, but we don’t believe it is robust enough to put it out into the field,” Poth said, noting that if the technology comes together sooner than 2020, FirstNet will push to have it implemented sooner.

“We will be calling you in 2020 to make sure it is on time,” Sen. James Inhofe, Oklahoma, said, also stressing the importance of indoor location accuracy.

Hassan said that she had heard concerns from constituents about the terms of use (ToU) for the state plans and who can access the plans. She said she was told it can be difficult to compare the FirstNet/AT&T plan to an alternative state plan because the ToU prevent users from sharing the information with some key people in the state.

Poth noted that because of the nature of FirstNet as a mission-critical public-safety network, some of the information is confidential and not publicly available. However, FirstNet is working with states to provide access to key state personnel who need it, he said.

Initially, AT&T and FirstNet envisioned that about 50 individuals from each state would need access but soon heard from states that they needed access for more people, Sambar said. AT&T has worked to provide that access as needed but wants to make sure everyone with access to the state plan is a state employee or an authorized consultant, he added.

Amy Klobuchar asked how responsive FirstNet and AT&T had been in responding to questions on state plans. Following the release of state plans on June 19, states have a 45-day period in which to ask questions and offer feedback. At the end of that period on Aug. 4, FirstNet will take the feedback and provide a finalized state plan to states that haven’t opted in by September.

Poth said that FirstNet has received hundreds of comments and questions and is responding to as many of them as it can before Aug. 4 and will continue to do so as it works to finalize the plans.

Brown told the subcommittee that FirstNet was very responsive to Virginia as it was reviewing its state plan. Now that the state has opted in, officials plan to hold seven regional conferences with FirstNet officials to give public-safety stakeholders in the state an open forum to ask questions and learn more about the network.

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