The FirstNet Game: Who Do You Trust?
By Joe Hanna
Tuesday, November 14, 2017 | Comments
During the early days of television, evening game shows were among the most highly watched programs on the air. Few were more popular than “Who Do You Trust?,” which initially aired in 1956. Jump forward 60 years later, a new version of this show is back on the air. In both versions, a panel is provided with a story presented by three different contestants and a panel of judges who try to sort out which contestant is telling the truth. As we look at the current state of affairs surrounding the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), we could easily see a scenario in which the various players in the FirstNet arena could fill a panel of contestants, and the judges, otherwise known as public safety, would have a serious challenge determining a winner.

Flash back to the period between 2008 and 2011. As the debate over the highly prized and valuable 10 megahertz of spectrum known as the D block took place, an unprecedented alliance of public-safety entities known as the Public Safety Alliance advanced the cause of taking the D block out of a pending FCC auction and awarding it to public safety for the development of a dedicated, nationwide public-safety broadband network (NPSBN). Emphasis on dedicated, nationwide and network.

In testimony before Congress, the underlying arguments of the public-safety community centered on the notion that the future of public-safety broadband communications could not possibly be effectively implemented without this additional 10 megahertz of spectrum. In short, the future of civilization as we know it was in jeopardy if this 10 megahertz of spectrum was not given to public safety. Equally, there was considerable attention to the critical need for the proposed dedicated public-safety network to address the needs of rural public-safety constituents. As a result of this hard-fought campaign, the D block was ultimately awarded to public safety.

Fast forward to the creation of FirstNet in 2012. Congressional testimony by the FirstNet board’s first chairman promised deployment of the dedicated NPSBN to cover “every square meter” of the U.S. The vision still appeared to center on a purpose-built, thus “dedicated,” broadband network focused around the D block. After all, the proponents of the enabling legislation consistently argued that public safety could not possibly provide their users with the capabilities needed without this 10 megahertz of spectrum.

Another four years later, FirstNet issued a request for proposals (RFP) to identify a partner to deploy the promised dedicated, nationwide network. After a lengthy process, bids were submitted, evaluated and an award made to AT&T. Following the award to AT&T, FirstNet then distributed the legislatively required plans to each of the U.S. states and territories.

In reviewing the enabling legislation, states and territories have two options. They can either elect to opt out of FirstNet and deploy their own radio access network (RAN) that connects to the FirstNet core or do nothing and enable their public-safety constituents to participate in FirstNet. Contrary to media reports, there was no specified option defined in the enabling legislation to opt in because this option was a given unless the state or territory specifically elected to opt out.

That said, a public announcement to opt in certainly makes good press. A key point, however, is that the hype of how many states and territories have elected to opt in is meaningless because the only metric that will ultimately count is how many users in any state or territory actually become FirstNet customers. To date, that metric remains unknown.

And we now find that AT&T has a clearly undefined path regarding incorporation of the D block spectrum. That band of spectrum — the very 10 megahertz that was required to ensure the future of American civilization — may or may not be implemented. To date, AT&T has advised that 700 MHz band 14 — the D block spectrum — will be added to new sites at some unknown point and will be added to existing sites as coverage or capacity is needed.

In congressional testimony, AT&T first advised that it could not commit to a public safety grade deployment because it didn’t know what that was, then later backtracked and indicated that it would consider such a network after realizing that the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) had provided such a definition through the FirstNet Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC).

At the end of the day, FirstNet is, in real terms, neither a dedicated network nor nationwide. In most circles, a network is defined to include both an evolved packet core (EPC) and a RAN. While AT&T has agreed to build and use a dedicated core, the network will be the same network used by its current commercial customers. Nationwide? Yes in the population centers, but what about the massive parcels of real estate outside those population centers? The issue of coverage is at the core of most concerns of the states that have released some form of RFPs as they consider opt-out alternatives.

Adding another element to the mix, Verizon announced its intent to pursue the public-safety market. FirstNet supporters have used copious quantities of ink and electronic outlets to criticize this offering, but Verizon seems to simply be following the AT&T model of using of its commercial network, complete with an offer of priority access and pre-emption, along with development and implementation of a dedicated public-safety core. By all accounts, Verizon has a larger geographic footprint than AT&T and serves considerably more public-safety customers than AT&T. Other than being saddled by the unknown elements of the bureaucracy that is unavoidable within the contract between FirstNet and AT&T, the distinction between the AT&T and Verizon offerings is pretty thin.

Then we get to the next contestants — those who submitted a bid and were not successful and others who were unsuccessful in the FirstNet award process and have now elected to pursue an alternative offering to the states and territories. Of particular interest is one unsuccessful bidder, Rivada Networks, which has aggressively lobbied a number of states and territories to opt out of FirstNet and pursue an alternative path in the form of an “innovative” approach. This vendor has promised coverage greater than that offered by FirstNet, all at no cost (or a penny per user) through a visionary but unproven model. From this vendor’s rhetoric to date, there certainly appears to be a cure for cancer, 40 acres and a mule for all that elect to subscribe to this model. It remains unclear as to how a new entrant’s unproven model is capable of providing the level of coverage, reliability and sustainability at levels above that of the nation’s largest wireless carriers at no cost.

To add yet another element to the mix, the opt-out process allowed in the enabling legislation includes terms and conditions that, on the surface, are a bit stout. FirstNet has stated that a provider in an opt-out state or territory will have to provide coverage and subscriber penetration levels equal to that required by AT&T. One minor problem — we have no clue as to what coverage AT&T has agreed to, nor any idea as to what minimum subscriber penetration levels are required. Those minor details remain guarded under lock and key.

While public safety created the environment under which FirstNet and AT&T operate, public safety is not allowed this basic information regarding the fruits of its efforts. That said, any state or territory looking to opt out should certainly be aware of the valid reasons for such conditions. If a state or territory is even considering the possibility of the potential failure of an opt-out alternative provider to meet the requirements imposed on AT&T, it should question why it is even considering an alternative, unproven provider. Options have consequences.

Are you confused yet? Referring back to the opening paragraph, which candidate ultimately does not appear to be part of a Pinocchio convention? It is indeed difficult to determine a winner in the “Who Do You Trust?” FirstNet game.

After a 30-year career in public safety, Joe Hanna now serves as a consultant to the wireless industry in matters related to public policy and regulatory affairs. He is a fellow in the Radio Club of America (RCA), a senior fellow for the Center for Digital Government, and a life member and past president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) International. Hanna is a member of the editorial advisory board of MissionCritical Communications magazine.

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On 2/6/18, John Eubank said:
A great unbiased review by an expert who has both experience and intelligence in the field of communication. I also have a question. Why is it that no one is addressing the most deadliest timeframe in emergency communications — the time when a disruption in service occurs and the silence turns from golden to deadly in minutes? I ask that someone consider the obvious ... constantly update and embed geospatial EM info into the memory on every electronic device so that in the event of a loss in connectivity, critical content will always be within arm's reach.

On 11/15/17, Dave said:
Good read Joe. If we can trust FirstNet and AT&T, why all the secrecy about what the contract requires AT&T to bring to the table? I believe that really doesn't matter in the long run as FirstNet will either succeed or fail based on the end user adoption. I also firmly believe that the network itself is irrelevant to accomplishing the goals that brought about FirstNet. While it will stimulate competition, we already have reliable broadband, and other carriers have already offered the quality of service, priority and pre-emption (QPP). What is really needed is a standardized communications tool app that may be utilized on any network. Without that, the vision will never be truly realized. And unfortunately it currently looks like FirstNet is more vested in its relationship with AT&T than its relationship with public safety.


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