There still seems to be some confusion about how a state opting into FirstNet will impact the agencies within the state. AT&T has been awarded the FirstNet 25-year contract, a number of states have already opted in, and more are lining up to do so. Rivada is still trying to make a case for states to opt out and build their own Radio Access Network, and now Verizon is promising to build out a parallel network to compete and keep its existing agency customers. I am concerned about these activities not because I don’t believe Rivada or Verizon has the right to compete, but simply because in order for FirstNet to work as envisioned it has to be the dominant public safety broadband network.
FirstNet was envisaged as a nationwide dedicated public safety broadband network to help ease the interoperability issues the public safety community has faced for more than forty years. Incidents such as 9/11 and Katrina made us acutely aware of the need for a public safety communications system all first responders can use as they come together at incidents.
The FirstNet law does not require any public safety agency within an opt-in state to switch to AT&T. In fact, the law says that no agency has to sign up for any FirstNet services—ever. However, I am hopeful that over time the FirstNet/AT&T network will be expanded so there will be few if any differences in either real or perceived coverage with other commercial broadband networks. It is not realistic to believe FirstNet/AT&T can, today, provide complete coverage for all of the first responder agencies in a given state, or that other broadband networks fighting for the public safety business will prove beneficial for the public safety community and its city, county, and state governments. To be honest, my vision continues to be focused on one FirstNet—one network that can meet the requirements of the public safety community from coast to coast and border to border.
Some states have reviewed the plans submitted to them and a number have asked their governors to opt in early. Other state organizations met with public safety stakeholders across their states and developed questions and a list of concerns that were delivered to FirstNet/AT&T. These are being reviewed and either incorporated in state plans or being responded to in some other way. At the moment, we have states that have opted in, states leaning toward opting in, and a very few I am told, that may in fact push hard for opting out. The single most important questions for many public safety agencies concern AT&T coverage in the agency’s coverage area.
Arizona, for example, has opted in, but Verizon is currently the primary broadband provider for the state’s public safety community. Many agencies have questions about some of the maps AT&T provided that indicate coverage AT&T plans for a few months down the road, which is different from what it is today. This causes confusion since many know exactly where there is coverage and where there are holes from their network operators. Once these agencies find these holes on the maps provided by FirstNet/AT&T, and they find they show coverage today when there is none, this does not help the AT&T cause.
So, we have a situation where opt-in states have approved FirstNet/AT&T to build out the network in that state. AT&T is offering up not only the Public Safety Band 14 that will be built out over time but access to its entire LTE network. This, of course, can speed up deployment but Verizon will not let go of its existing customers easily. It would be a wonderful world if once the RFP was awarded, everyone stood down and permitted FirstNet to build out its network and then was able to reach the goal of a common nationwide broadband network with full pre-emption being used by all public safety agencies.
The reality is that there are and will continue to be coverage differences. A few years ago when a broadband supplier was chosen, there might have been a coverage difference and it is assumed (perceived) that the coverage difference still exists when, in fact, it might have been corrected.
The original plan for the FirstNet network was always to build it out only on Band 14 (the FirstNet 700-MHz spectrum) and to have public safety roam on commercial networks until Band 14 was built out in their territories. AT&T changed the game by making all of its LTE spectrum, current and future, available to public safety as well as Band 14 so the network will be ready almost instantly in many areas. Other areas will still require the build-out specified by AT&T in its RFP response to FirstNet. Perhaps one of the real issues is that instead of having to wait years for any coverage in a given jurisdiction, now you may have some on day one.
How Do Agencies Sort This All Out?
The governor in each state has three options for the state:
- A state will opt in officially
- A state will opt out officially
- A state will opt in by default if the governor does not declare for either option and the 90-day decision period expires
Obligations of Opting In
FirstNet/AT&T will make the FirstNet network including priority and pre-emption available to the agencies within the opt-in state that decide to take advantage of the FirstNet/AT&T network. The state will not be held responsible for any of the network build-out or operational costs. The vendor, AT&T in this case, will be responsible for deploying, operating, and upgrading the network within each opt-in state for the 25-year duration of the contact.
No agency, local, county, city, region, or state is obligated in any way to sign up to make use of the FirstNet/AT&T network. In fact, each agency can decide if that agency:
- Will, in fact, sign an agreement with AT&T to make use of the FirstNet/AT&T network
- Continues to use the broadband supplier with which it is now contracted
- A short-term or longer-term decision
- Will not use any broadband network and will continue to use only its existing Land Mobile Radio (LMR) voice system with push-to-talk (PTT)
- A short-term or longer-term decision that can be revisited as the network is built out
The Role of FirstNet
The theory behind FirstNet is to provide a nationwide network on which any public safety agency, be it state, local, tribal, territory, or federal, can operate broadband devices that will:
- Be able to be used regardless of where the first responder is sent.
- Be fully compatible with other network devices from different agencies and enable these devices to communicate with one another and the incident command staff while retaining contact with their own jurisdiction even if they are on the other side of the country.
- Share in FirstNet resources including cybersecurity, applications, and other shared resources that may be needed to manage an incident or an event.
- Be able to make use of Push-To-Talk (PTT) services not for mission-critical dispatch and operations but at incidents to help provide cross-agency voice communications by interconnecting the FirstNet broadband network with multiple Land Mobile Radio voice systems.
A Nationwide Network
The best possible solution for public safety is still the original concept of one nationwide network with one set of back-end services, the same level of security, and the ability to monitor all network functions 24x7x365. Whichever vendor won the FirstNet RFP, we would still be faced with many of the same issues.
Should a State Opt In or Out?
This will depend on the governor in each state and hopefully the direction they are given by the Single Point of Contact and the public safety agencies. In an ideal world, this decision should be made based on input from the public safety community.
If a state opts in, how do the agencies within that state decide if FirstNet will provide the services they want and need? The decision about whether the FirstNet/AT&T network is sufficient for a jurisdiction will have to be reviewed by each agency. However, I would hope that within a county or city the broadband provider will be the same across all of the various services: law, fire, EMS, emergency management. If not, what is introduced into the area will bring with it yet another interoperability issue. There may already be an issue between LMR systems but by adding different broadband service providers, that lack of interoperability will be perpetuated.
I believe FirstNet/AT&T missed an opportunity to start the first responder community off with maps of AT&T’s coverage as of today and then after milestone one. Instead, the first maps seen by public safety agencies are of the build-out after the first FirstNet milestone. This apples and oranges comparison means AT&T is showing better, exaggerated coverage than it will offer public safety on day one of a contract.
What happens if some of the agencies within a state choose a different broadband network instead of the FirstNet/AT&T network? This option is, of course almost the same as the discussion about this question. If different agencies within the state end up with different broadband service providers there could be an even greater interoperability issue within the state. This would be no different from today where in some states first responders have contracts with one of the four major carriers or perhaps Southern Link. There are some states in which different public safety agencies have subscribed to services by AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, or T-Mobile (or two of these).
Competitors to FirstNet/AT&T will have quick responses about interoperability issues being handled, after all, they will say, all of the devices are on LTE networks and LTE networks all over the world have roaming agreements where one user can use diverse networks. This is true when you are talking about an LTE network in the United States permitting its customers to roam onto a Canadian, Mexican, French, or other LTE network located in a different country or when the customer is beyond its network’s coverage and roams onto one of the many smaller network operators’ systems. However, in the United States I do not believe AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile have agreements permitting roamers across these four U.S. networks AND there is a big difference between roaming onto a different network when you are out of range of your prime network. Exactly how will that work if you are still in the coverage area of your prime network but need to “roam” onto Band 14 (FirstNet)?
What if today’s AT&T network does not provide the same level of broadband coverage an agency is accustomed to from another broadband vendor? Can and will FirstNet/AT&T fix the real or perceived coverage differences between FirstNet/AT&T’s network and the network the agency is now using? If so how long will it take and how can FirstNet/AT&T prove it has met the agency’s coverage requirements? Getting first responders set up to drive test their coverage area with loaner equipment could be helpful but that is a lengthy process.
Sierra Wireless, a longtime wireless data modem company could play an important role in proving or disproving network coverage with its MG90 mobile router equipped with its AirLink Mobility Manager. I am told that when this mobile router is installed in a vehicle, even if is it not activated it will measure the actual coverage of multiple networks. If it works as well as I have been told, it would seem that AT&T would have a number of them available for drive testing by any agency that wants to verify coverage either now or after AT&T has completed the build in their area.
The biggest challenge in the FirstNet/AT&T deployment as I see it is not convincing states to opt in, it appears that this is happening quickly. The biggest and most costly part of rolling out FirstNet by AT&T is the cost of working with the various agencies and signing them up or if not, having them remain willing to consider signing up when AT&T can prove it can provide the coverage needed for a given agency.
I am sure Verizon is not going away, and will continue to be a competitor AT&T will have to sell against. In a world that was not market-driven, FirstNet would be mandated as the only broadband network for first responders. However, this is a market-driven world and Verizon and even Rivada have the right to compete for the public safety business. We didn’t believe FirstNet would achieve its goal of 100% agency participation quickly or easily but I have to wonder if the Verizon competition will spur AT&T on to making faster progress with its own network and perhaps build out more Band 14 as well.
Last week I wrote about the Verizon play and while the article received mostly positive comments I was called out by some as a pro-AT&T person. So let me make this clear. The alliance I feel is to the public safety community. I have been involved in helping the FirstNet law to be passed and I worked as a consultant for FirstNet for a few months. However, over the past 12 years I have provided consulting services to all of the tier one broadband network operators as well as several tier two vendors. I have provided consulting services, educational services, and white papers to many vendors in the wireless arena and I have been engaged as a sub-contractor for one state project and worked with cities and counties across the United States. Those who contend I am biased toward AT&T do know me very well. I am indeed, biased, but that bias is for the public safety community and FirstNet since I believe the only way to provide a true nationwide, fully-interoperable public safety network is through FirstNet. The fact that AT&T was awarded the contract is not an important point to me. The main point is that it is now time to find a way to bring the FirstNet system up and operational and put devices into the hands of as many first responders as possible.
Andrew M Seybold
©2017 Andrew Seybold, Inc.