PSA: The Art of Opting In to FirstNet

Introduction

On or about June 19 (next week), the state Single Points of Contact (SPOCs) will be given access to a web portal where they will find the state plan proposals as provided by the FirstNet/AT&T team. This is the first step in the opt-in or opt-out process and the SPOCs will have 45 days to provide FirstNet and AT&T with the state’s questions, comments, and suggestions. FirstNet has made it clear that if a state is happy with the state plan as delivered it can opt in right away and start making use of the AT&T network with priority access (pre-emptive priority to follow at the end of the year), and taking advantage of the cost savings promised during the SPOC meeting last week in Dallas. At the PSCR meeting in San Antonio this week I attended for only two days and I heard rumors there is a race to see which state will be first to opt in.

Even so, most states will want to take the entire 45 days and hopefully involve the customers of the network, the public safety community within that state. If this is done properly each city, county, or other jurisdiction should be able to review the state plan, or at least the part of the coverage that concerns them most, and to comment back to the SPOCs. As I have mentioned numerous times, I am a fan of opt-in-plus where the plus is the ability for the states, regions, counties, cities, and local jurisdictions to work with AT&T to enhance network components or even add funds to help expand the coverage AT&T says it will provide.

It is important to understand that FirstNet as a network will never really be “finished” in the sense that AT&T will declare it complete and not make additional changes. There is not a single commercial LTE network that is “finished” since each year and each quarter the network operator is adding sites, building more inbuilding systems, and otherwise enhancing the network. This will be true for FirstNet as well. The good news for public safety is that as AT&T enhances the commercial side of its network it will also be enhancing the public safety side. This will mean that over time network coverage should be enhanced when and where it is needed.

Opt-In-Plus

By opting in-plus, and making sure additions agreed to by both the jurisdiction and AT&T can be made over and above what AT&T is planning to provide, there will be ongoing flexibility built into the plans. There are a number of ways this can be structured that will be of benefit to both the public safety community and FirstNet/AT&T. In many cases there are funds available from other sources that can be used to provide additional coverage in certain areas, and of course, local jurisdictions might be able to work with AT&T on site and backhaul sharing and other aspects of the network deployment.

I am not speaking for either AT&T or FirstNet here but I would hope when a state plan is “locked down” that will not mean the plan cannot include changes to the network moving forward. Such changes would include additional Radio Access Networks (RAN), backhaul, site sharing, and other ways to enhance the network beyond what is in the plan or perhaps to speed up some of the coverage shown as a few years out but the jurisdiction wants it sooner. The “after plan” agreements could be proposed by a state, county, city, or jurisdiction and then agreed to (or not) by AT&T and added to the build orders in process. This is especially important in areas where AT&T does not already have coverage that has been extensively drive tested and verified.

Opting In But Not Signing Up

I have talked with a few state SPOCs and others who are skeptical of the AT&T coverage within their state and, in some cases, most of the state agencies are using another carrier’s commercial network. In this case I still believe the state should opt in and then it will be up to the local jurisdictions to decide to join or not join the FirstNet system. The law clearly states that public safety does not have to use the FirstNet network. AT&T is making it financially advantageous to make use of it but in some states the issue of coverage is of paramount concern.

If the state opts in and the jurisdictions ask AT&T to prove it can provide coverage for the jurisdiction’s needs that equals or exceeds what it has today, then the locals will sign up for the service. However, it is important that the state opt in so the public safety community can come onboard when the AT&T FirstNet network is available and has been built out to satisfy local coverage requirements. If the state opts out, the only choice the locals have is to make use of whomever wins the opt-out RFP. Opting in provides the ability for agencies to stay where they are if they choose to, to move to the AT&T FirstNet network right away, or to wait until AT&T has added to its coverage and has satisfied the local coverage issues.

At the SPOC meeting in Dallas, the final comments made by the most senior AT&T person present were that AT&T hoped public safety would join the network but that AT&T is fully committed to earning the public safety community’s business. This was perhaps the most important takeaway from the meeting. There had been rumors floating around that state plans would be presented as a “take it or leave it” proposal. Instead, both FirstNet and AT&T made it clear there will be room to make changes to the draft plans and in the case where AT&T does not appear to meet the coverage requirements, the public safety community could stay on the network until such time as AT&T can back up its claims of improved coverage.

In some instances, the differences in coverage are a perception rather than a reality. In such cases AT&T would do well to provision a number of devices on a trial basis for a couple of months. The caveat for that is something we learned when deploying test wireless data systems for business users in the 1990s. If you provision the company with some devices, disappear for a few months, and then come back to learn the results you will probably find the devices sitting on a shelf gathering dust. However, if after you provide the devices and the network you stay in touch, offer additional training, and work with those in the field, the experience will be more positive and in most cases will result in a successful conclusion.

Conclusion

FirstNet has been a long time coming, and now things are beginning to move at a rapid pace. Opting in makes the most sense to me, and opting in with some of the ideas I have provided above seems to me to be the best of both worlds. First and foremost, FirstNet and AT&T need to treat public safety as the customer and listen to its needs and requirements. It is not realistic to believe each and every concern can be mitigated, but if AT&T and FirstNet continue to work with the states and the public safety community at large and are willing to be flexible, the result will be a much higher opt-in percentage and a much happier public safety community. Finally, in order to take part in the multiplicity of ways to help implement the network, the first order of business is for the state to negotiate the plus part of the opt-in scenario and then convince the governor to opt in. Opting out simply limits your ability to work with and become partners with the FirstNet network as it moves forward.

Andrew M Seybold
©Andrew Seybold, Inc.

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