House Hearing on FirstNet Draws Questions on Interoperability, Coverage, Resiliency
Wednesday, November 01, 2017 | Comments

Members of the House communications subcommittee seemed generally pleased with the progress of the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) and its contractor AT&T based on dialog during a hearing Wednesday morning, while asking detailed questions on interoperability, coverage and network resiliency.

In her opening remarks, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, chair of the House subcommittee on communications and technology, pointed out that while AT&T will build the FirstNet radio access network (RAN) in opt-in states or territories at no cost to each jurisdiction, public-safety entities will still be responsible for paying subscription costs and end-user device expenses, and they are not required to subscribe to the FirstNet service.

“We must ensure that choice remains a paramount principle as the states and territories proceed with their decision-making and implementation,” she said. “While there has been some debate on schedules of fees, subscriber levels, device availability and whether the network will be able to deliver mission-critical-level services, I know the panel today can help us sort through all the issues to further everyone’s goal of making this a transparent and successful process.”

During her questions to the witnesses, Blackburn asked about AT&T’s cybersecurity initiatives for the nationwide public-safety broadband network (NPSBN). In response, Christopher Sambar, senior vice president, AT&T, noted how important only one core is to network security. “Interoperable cores feeds into your question,” he said. “Part of the strength of the network is reducing seams and vulnerabilities. If you try to introduce additional cores, it creates seams. Core-to-core interoperability … introduces vulnerabilities.”

Committee members generally seemed to accept there should be only one core for the NPSBN. Verizon and others have advocated for additional public-safety cores that would interoperate with AT&T’s public-safety core.

Robert LeGrande II, founder of consulting firm The Digital Decision, advocated for interoperable cores during his opening remarks.

Interoperability was a hot topic during the hearing with Sambar highlighting the current interoperability that consumer cellular users have between carriers and AT&T’s work with the Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP). Michael Poth, FirstNet CEO, said the current system will allow another carrier’s devices to talk to an AT&T device, and FirstNet is requiring open standards for devices and applications.

Sambar later said both the carrier and FirstNet would certify devices to ensure security. When asked by Rep. Jerry McNerney what standards would be used, Sambar said: “AT&T has our own proprietary standards. FirstNet has developed their own proprietary standards that they will be certifying the devices based on.”

Poth said FirstNet’s standards are drawn from federal agencies such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the departments of Justice and Homeland Security, and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). 

LeGrande advocated for higher interoperability than just commercial carrier interoperability because he said it will promote competition. LeGrande said FirstNet should incentivize other carriers and the private sector to participate in the NPSBN and create a level playing field to drive competition. “If there’s one thing the public-safety communications market needs, it is competition at every level,” he said.

Blackburn also asked about rural coverage and whether the committee should be monitoring whether FirstNet and AT&T are meeting rural buildout schedules. John Stevens, the statewide interoperability coordinator for New Hampshire, said his state determined that an alternative plan derived from a request for proposals (RFP) process would provide statewide coverage, unlike the state plan from AT&T, which does not address the northern part of the state.

Rep. Dave Loebsack from Iowa asked about the 15 percent geographic requirement for the contractor to partner with existing rural telecom providers in the FirstNet RFP. Sambar said AT&T is confident the carrier will hit that target and plans to exceed the 20 percent mark.

Poth said the RFP required AT&T to identify rural telecom partners in each state, and FirstNet will measure AT&T’s progress against that requirement. Poth sidestepped a question from Rep. Doris Matsui from California about how FirstNet verified the coverage maps provided by AT&T in the state plans. “We have been for the last three years … working with all the states to understand their coverage, their perception of coverage and what the actual coverage they believe,” he said.

Poth said the draft state plans provided coverage information that states could then use to validate “and that’s what’s been driving a lot of the conversations as to where they want to go and what they need to do.”

Rep. Anna Eschoo from California came down hardest on AT&T regarding coverage, asking Sambar how the carrier is dealing with coverage areas where AT&T is not the dominant carrier in that area. “We’re going to build big cell towers in the places where we don’t have coverage so that we can cover ubiquitously throughout California to give them the coverage they’re asking for,” Sambar said.

Eschoo also asked about penalties for opting out included in draft spectrum manager lease agreements (SMLAs) distributed to some states, specifically the $15 billion penalty included in the California SMLA. “There aren’t any penalties right now,” Poth said. “That was FirstNet’s attempt in trying to make sure in our full transparency … if they opt out and they have a problem where they have to default … the estimates could be as high as that number.”

Poth said the subscriber adoption targets in the SMLA are comparable to AT&T’s adoption targets.

Rep. Mike Doyle from Pennsylvania, which released an RFP for an alternative plan and held a state legislative hearing on FirstNet Oct. 19, asked about the risks of opting out of FirstNet. Poth called the NPSBN “a very complicated network with a lot of moving parts.” He said FirstNet will work with states that opt out and if the state fails to uphold its opt-out duties, FirstNet “will instantly work with that state to minimize impacts and move us forward.” He noted AT&T isn’t obligated to cover the costs of building a RAN in an opt-out state.

Doyle asked Stevens about the risk of New Hampshire’s alternative plan with Rivada Networks, a company that Doyle said does not have experience operating a live RAN or in restoring communications after a disaster. “Through the plan and safeguards we have in place … if there is a decision to opt out, New Hampshire is confident we could provide a statewide application to FirstNet for all our first responders,” Stevens said.

When asked about AT&T’s network resiliency during disasters, Poth said: “We require of AT&T via the contract that the installations are public-safety hardened, and how we’re measuring that is against reliability and uptime.”

“Reliability and uptime on the network is our priority,” Sambar said in response to resiliency questions from Rep. Jerry McNerney from California.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger from Illinois asked about why the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) notice of funding opportunity (NOFO) hasn’t yet been released to the states. Poth said NTIA has published the NOFO into “the system,” and the guidance should be available in the next few days.

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Comments
On 11/2/17, Leon van der linde said:
Everybody is going on about the interoperability.
Who is asking the question of cost?
Under the Project 25 (P25) system, you pay an annual license fee of X dollars. Now with the Long Term Evolution (LTE) system, you will be paying thousands of dollars annually for all the calls being made. This does not sound like a well thought out decision. They are going from a good economic model to a model that does not make any good sense to me. Even if you have a fixed monthly subscription cost, can it be competitive with the annual radio license?

On 11/2/17, Gary Gilbert said:
AT&T says only one core for reliability, shutting out interoperability with other carriers. Also are they recommending one core for the whole nation? That is scary due to no redundancy. One core is not good and locks out competition for FirstNet and AT&T.

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