Public Safety Advocate: A Report from Dallas

FirstNet/AT&T/SPOC Meeting and unfortunate activities from one vendor

Introduction

This past week in Dallas was the fifth time the Single (State) Point of Contacts (SPOCs) and their teams met with FirstNet and from most reports this was the best meeting yet. The reason, of course, was that this was the first SPOC gathering since AT&T became the official partner of FirstNet and the public safety community. Unfortunately, one vendor that was not chosen appears to have over-stepped the bounds of decorum while the SPOC event was underway.

I think the SPOC meeting was attended by representatives from all fifty states and six territories. The event was well planned and implemented and the number of both FirstNet and AT&T employees and contractors present was a measure of how important this event was to both of them. On the FirstNet side a number of the board members were in attendance, as were most of the C-level executives and many others who have either been with FirstNet for a long time or who recently joined FirstNet from related jobs.

AT&T was also well represented. If anyone doubted this is an important contract for AT&T they should look to the number of C-level executives who were there and remained quite visible, the number of specialists in every discipline needed to build and operate this complex network, as well as the many regional representatives that were in attendance. I chatted with a few who were new to AT&T and learned that all of those I talked to had been involved in public safety before, or in a few cases had been a state SPOC or held some other position in government. The point is that those I talked with are not new to the special requirements that drive public safety communications and they won’t have to spend six months or more learning how to work with the public safety community.

The sessions were good, though some SPOCS were hoping for a more detailed look under the hood of the state plans that will be delivered to them in draft form in only a few weeks, but on the whole most of those I had the opportunity to discuss the sessions with came away feeling, some for the first time, that this network will truly happen, it is real, and it will be made available to the public safety community in each state as soon after the governor opts in as it takes to put the contracts for service in place and provision existing devices.

The state plans will be fluid when the first iteration is delivered (target date June 19, 2017). There will then be a 45-day review, question, and discussion period, and another short period of time for the plans to be “locked down” and then delivered to the governors in the September timeframe. That will start the 90-day clock for the governor to decide, hopefully based on the recommendations from the SPOC and his or her team, to either opt in or opt out. AT&T also has an offer on the table for any state that reviews its state plan, is happy with it as is or with a few modifications, and that wants to opt in earlier. If a state choses an early opt-in, all of the AT&T existing LTE network becomes available to that state with priority access until the end of 2017 when pre-emptive access will be added.

I attended this event to listen and learn, to hear what the SPOCs and their staffs are thinking, what questions they have, and how quickly and completely they received either answers or the promise of follow-up after the event. I was asked multiple times about my feelings about opting in or out and I simply referred folks to my written blogs on AllThingsFirstnet.com. I was more interested in learning how they were going about gathering the information they need to be able to provide their own guidance to the governor of the state than to repeat what I have written.

There were a lot of questions about agencies with existing non-AT&T contracts, perceived differences in coverage, and concerns expressed about coverage. AT&T’s response was that AT&T would have to earn the business of the public safety community. There is no part of the law creating FirstNet that requires a department to make use of the network even in an opt-in state. AT&T seems to fully understand that it will have to prove what it is saying it will deliver then actually deliver.

One of the most important takeaways to me was the understanding by FirstNet, AT&T, and I believe most of the SPOCs that this network will take time to get up and running. Along the way there will be some bumps and perhaps a time or two of running off the tracks, but with good solid communications between FirstNet, AT&T, the state SPOCs (even after the opt-in process), and the public safety community in each state, it will turn out to be what we have all been hoping for, which is a new set of tools to assist public safety personnel in doing their jobs better and faster.

Meanwhile Just a Few Floors Above

When I arrived, I was told Rivada had a suite on one of the upper floors and was conducting its own meetings. This was fine, Rivada certainly has the right to discuss its opt-out strategy with whomever sits down with its people. But the other activities that were reported to me by many attendees of the official SPOC conference were troubling. The first question raised to me was why they were there as Rivada when it was Rivada Mercury that submitted the RFP response. I don’t have an answer for that, only that the Mercury portion of the team seems to have disappeared.

I was told that this week Rivada put out a video I have not been able to find so perhaps I did not receive the correct information. However, I was told about it in detail by a number of people who were upset that it appeared Rivada was insinuating that the FirstNet spectrum was stolen and would be warehoused rather than used. If that is true it sure sounds to me like Rivada is trying to get Congress to become involved in something that is already running smoothly. Next, I am told that several of the Rivada folks had to be escorted off the SPOC conference area floor because they were standing outside the venue handing out brochures. They were escorted down the escalator where they continued to try to hand out their brochures. Lastly, I have a copy of a special PDF file Rivada prepared as a brochure for a state, and Rivada convinced the hotel staff it was a legitimate part of the SPOC program and had the brochure slipped under the doors of the SPOCs. The brochure I have talks about Rivada (not Rivada Mercury) and shows a 100% coverage of the state, which I happen to know is not possible, and at the bottom quotes a monthly rate of 1 cent per user for public safety. I don’t mind if a company is fighting for business in a legitimate way such as holding meetings at the same venue. However, if the reported additional activities by Rivada are true they are certainly not, in my estimation, doing anything positive for public safety. It is only trying to disrupt what is in process and perhaps fighting for its very survival.

If Rivada wins states that decide to opt out fair and square that is one thing. And that brings me back to a subject I have discussed before. Can a state opt out and have sufficient revenue raised by public safety and secondary users to pay for the network build, operation, and upgrades for the next 25 years? Further, if the network within that state cannot support these costs, who will be on the hook for any shortfall? After our review of all 3,143 counties in the United States we believe 52% of them cannot be self-sustaining for FirstNet. This research is based on the only two sources of income FirstNet can derive from the network. The first is fees paid by the public safety community for access to the network and all of the services, and the second is the ability to monetize the secondary usage of the spectrum.

This means that within that county there has to be a demand for the spectrum on a secondary basis. Our findings show that in many counties there is more than enough spectrum already licensed to the network operators so there is no need to make use of this spectrum for additional capacity on other networks. If that is true, someone, somewhere has to step up and fund the shortfall for each of these counties. That is one reason Congress made it clear that this network needed to be deployed nationwide and that the income potential from the major metro areas would help off-set the costs of the areas that cannot support the network on their own. Opting out, unless a contract is very carefully worded, could end up costing a state a lot of money over the course of 25 years.

I am hopeful that the SPOCs came away from this meeting with a lot of information about what, when, and how, I know I did. Next up is the Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR) annual conference in San Antonio and I will be there as well to see what is happening in the labs that will perhaps impact public safety communications in the future.

Until Next week

Andrew M. Seybold
©2017 Andrew Seybold, Inc.

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