Public Safety Advocate: Confusion Between The FirstNet Authority and FirstNet (Built with AT&T)

Let’s start with The FirstNet Authority, which is the umbrella organization responsible for building and operating the nationwide public-safety broadband network known as FirstNet. The Authority is responsible for contracting with a private entity to build, operate, and refresh the network and providing oversight on behalf of the public-safety community. The Authority is also mandated to work directly with the public-safety community and to address first-responders’ communications needs going forward. 

When Congress passed the bill creating FirstNet, provisions for The FirstNet Authority were included at the request of the public-safety community and others. At the time, it was felt that there was no single organization within the public-safety community capable of taking on the massive task of building a nationwide broadband network and working with the private sector to create what was to become possibly the largest public/private partnership ever attempted. Congress surprised many of us when it associated the organization with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) rather than the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) or the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). However, this has worked reasonably well. 

Confusion Remains  

Those involved with either The FirstNet Authority or FirstNet (Built with AT&T) understand they are two totally different organizations with different roles in providing the public-safety community with a world-class nationwide broadband network. After the bidding process, a 25-year contract was awarded to AT&T Wireless to build and operate the FirstNet network with the first five years being critical build-out years with milestones that must be met. These milestones were created by and are monitored by The Authority and executed by FirstNet (Built with AT&T). 

Recently, the issue of which organization is responsible for what has come front and center as a result of the public-safety community’s quest to retain the 50 MHz of 4.9-GHz spectrum that was allocated to public safety in 2002. This undertaking is necessary because the FCC has decided to reallocate this public-safety spectrum to each state for its use or to lease to any entity it chooses. Unfortunately, the master lease does not provide any teeth to back up the FCC’s claim that existing public-safety users will be grandfathered in. 

Public-safety professionals who were instrumental in the creation of FirstNet have also found it necessary to organize a push for continued operation of the 4.9-GHz band solely for public safety. One suggestion was for the FCC to issue a license to The FirstNet Authority for all 50 MHz of the spectrum. This brought instant push-back from vendors, network operators, and even some within the public-safety community. When asked why they opposed the license being held by The FirstNet Authority, the overwhelming response was because AT&T would end up with the spectrum. 

This is not the intent of the Public Safety Spectrum Alliance (thepssa.org). As described above, while the two FirstNet organizations share a common goal, their responsibilities are completely different. Further, The FirstNet Authority is an Independent Authority in the NTIA, which is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC).

The FirstNet Authority was set up by Congress to be a quasi-federal organization to oversee what was intended to be a public/private partnership. When Congress created FirstNet, it allocated $7 billion in future spectrum auction proceeds to The Authority as a starter fund to hire personnel, plan the network, create a Request for Proposal (RFP), and select a company to build and maintain the network. There were three bidders and, at the end of the day, the 25-year contract was awarded to AT&T Wireless. Therefore, The FirstNet Authority is the contracting agency that oversees all aspects of the build-out. 

Nothing in the law ties The FirstNet Authority tightly to FirstNet (Built with AT&T). Instead, their relationship is typical of any relationship between an entity that issues a contract (The Authority) and the contractor (AT&T). The terms of the law do not preclude The Authority from obtaining additional spectrum for public safety nor does it mean if The Authority is granted a license for additional spectrum it will inevitably be given to FirstNet (Built with AT&T).

In addition to funds The FirstNet Authority received from future spectrum auctions, it receives a percentage of fees FirstNet (Built with AT&T) collects for services and re-invests them into the network. The Authority is free to disperse some of these funds to other companies for advanced communications tools or non-network-related tools in the future. According to The Authority’s current Roadmap (two upcoming Webinars), the next re-investment will go to providing public-safety access to AT&T’s 5G systems and services as they come online. Not ALL Authority reinvestment funds will necessarily be spent with AT&T.

In the June 25, 2020 Advocate entitled, “FirstNet—A Three-Way Partnership,” I wrote the following:

“In the beginning, there was some concern about how a public/private partnership of this size would work. As it has turned out, kinks were worked out and due in large part to past and present board members, it has worked well. However, this public/private partnership has become the three-way partnership that was originally envisioned: the public-safety user community, FirstNet (Built with AT&T) as the network service provider, and The FirstNet Authority, which oversees the entire network, discusses issues with the public-safety community, and ensures all conditions of the contract award are being met.” 

Three groups, The FirstNet Authority, FirstNet (Built with AT&T), and the public-safety community, all benefit from their collective progress. And progress comes when The Authority ensures what has been specified in the contract for the nationwide Public-Safety broadband network is what the Contractor (AT&T) delivers. 

By all accounts, this partnership has been working better than expected and a great deal of progress has been made as a result of how it was created and how it continues to operate. While there have been some mis-cues, they were to be expected and they have been relatively minor for a project of this magnitude. 

The suggestion that the 4.9-GHz spectrum be licensed to The FirstNet Authority once we regain full control was because The Authority will work with the public-safety community to determine the best path forward and not simply pass it through to the contractor building the network. Once the spectrum is securely in the hands of The Authority, there will be plenty of time to determine the highest and best use for this spectrum with the participation of the public-safety community, vendors, and interested parties. Further, since The Authority is independent, it is not required to navigate the miles of red tape federal agencies must deal with, and it is independent when it comes to meeting the needs of the public-safety community.

Moving forward, I suspect The FirstNet Authority will undertake projects that do not necessarily fall under the umbrella of the current build-and-operate contract. And I am sure each project will be vetted by the public-safety community. 

Winding Down

The FirstNet Authority Roadmap Webinars

The November 5, 2020, Advocate was devoted to The FirstNet Authority Roadmap. The Authority will host two webinars on the subject: the first on Wednesday, November 18, 2020, and the second on Tuesday, December 1, 2020. To register (there is no charge), you will need to sign up here: https://firstnet.gov/newsroom/events/first-responder-network-authority-roadmap-2020-december. This is a great way to learn more about the research, time, and effort that went into preparing this exceptional document. If you are using FirstNet, considering joining FirstNet, or would like to know more about the future of FirstNet, these are must-watch webinars.

The Passing of Ray Flynn 

A blog on the FirstNet.gov site discusses the passing of Ray Flynn, who was instrumental in helping FirstNet become law and then provided advice and information to those charged with making FirstNet a reality. I met Ray when I first joined the effort to assist the Public Safety Alliance as it began working with Congress and others. At the time, Ray was the Assistant Sheriff of the Las Vegas Police Department. Last week, many of us who had the privilege to work with and get to know Ray took part in a virtual “Celebration of Life” to honor him. Ray was always willing to help out and he made a difference. He stayed involved as FirstNet was evolving by offering suggestions and criticism when needed, and with his enthusiasm that helped many of us remain committed and focused on the tasks that needed to be completed. He will be missed by many. 

The NEW FCC

The Presidential Transition Team is becoming very active. In the past week, President-Elect Biden named the member of the team that will be providing input on who should be named to run the FCC as well as items the team feels should be taken up by the new FCC. I hope the commissioners, at least two of whom are currently in the minority, will be joined by one more to round out the new majority, after which I trust we will see a distinct change in direction at the FCC. In last week’s Advocate, I described changes in a number of directions that I believe are needed at the FCC.

We need to get back to where critical-communications systems receive the same or a higher level of consideration than existing for-profit and unlicensed spectrum users. To this end, we need to make sure the next FCC is aware of the needs of all those who want and need the spectrum, and that it is dedicated to protecting existing and new systems from harmful interference or increases in the noise floor that could prove detrimental to all radio spectrum users. These protections must be included when spectrum is reconfigured or new technologies come along to use this scarce resource more effectively.  

We have to be careful as more and more of our communications needs are being moved to wireless and rural America finally has access to broadband. I am hopeful the new FCC will be better stewards of the radio spectrum going forward.

The Next Issue

Thanksgiving is next week. If we publish an Advocate, it will be a few days after Thanksgiving. I trust we will all be safe and we will limit the number of people we share the day with. I am thankful for all our first responders and medical personnel who will be spending the day as they always do — making sure we are safe. Our sincere appreciation for all you do, all the time.

Until the next Advocate

Andrew M. Seybold
©2020, Andrew Seybold, Inc.

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