All 50 states, along with two territories and Washington, D.C., have decided to join FirstNet, the dedicated, nationwide first responder network, by its Dec. 28 deadline.
The unofficial member list now reflects all states opting in, as well as the territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, both of which are still working to restore infrastructure battered by hurricanes this fall. Decisions from the territories of American Samoa, Guam and Northern Marianas Islands are not due until March 12, 2018, AT&T said in a news release.
That includes the state of New Hampshire, which previously indicated on Dec. 7 that it would opt out and work with Rivada Networks LLC to stand up its own statewide network for first responders. California had remained undecided until Gov. Jerry Brown finalized a decision late Dec. 28.
In a statement on Dec. 28, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu indicated that after his state's decision to opt out, talks with other governors around the country who were themselves interested in pursuing independent networks revealed the deadline was approaching “too quickly for these other states to feel confident in an opt-out decision.”
“As a result, it now appears likely that no other states will opt out,” Sununu said. “While Rivada's plan remains the better option for New Hampshire, I have determined that the additional risk associated with being the only state to opt-out creates too high a barrier for New Hampshire to continue down the opt-out path alone.”
The governor said opting in now will preserve a pledge from service provider AT&T to build 48 new tower sites across New Hampshire, leading to "a top-quality public safety network for our first responders and enhanced coverage for all of our citizens."
The Dec. 28 deadline reflects the end of a 90-day period during which states were asked to decide whether they would participate or opt out. Opting in or doing nothing essentially implements the FirstNet/AT&T build-out plans submitted to each state earlier this year.
Users of FirstNet’s existing network already have access to priority communication, and the company added the ability to pre-empt non-emergency users during the week of Dec. 11. FirstNet SIM cards, which connect users’ cellphones to the network, are also available, and the FirstNet applications store opened on Oct. 1.
FirstNet plans to complete its core network in March 2018 across 56 states and territories, with a complete infrastructure build-out envisioned around 2020.
In an announcement from the office of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, New York state said its final, accepted plan created with FirstNet and service provider AT&T addresses New York’s “unique communication needs,” including expanding coverage in rural and urban areas, while “improving interoperability” with border states and Canada and shrinking the cost of services and devices.
Joining FirstNet comes at no cost to states, and individual public safety agencies and first responders aren’t required to join, even within member states. Those that do, however, are expected to face some service and device costs.
The New York governor’s office also cited the network’s ability to transform communication between public safety agencies, creating an evolving tool set that includes “public safety apps, specialized devices and Internet of Things technologies,” as well as “driving infrastructure investments and [creating] jobs across the state.”
“The entire state, from the Great Lakes to the most remote areas of the Adirondacks to New York City, must have seamless communication for our public safety community so that they can get more information quickly, make better informed decisions and save lives,” Cuomo said in a statement.
FirstNet CEO Mike Poth said New York’s decision was “especially meaningful” considering the network’s origins in the final recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. FirstNet was ultimately created by Congress in 2012 as part of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act, and its service is provided by AT&T under a 25-year contract.
“From giving public safety in New York City dedicated spectrum to bringing a reliable, high-speed wireless connection to rural and remote areas of the state, FirstNet will improve connectivity and foster innovation for law enforcement, fire and EMS,” Poth said in a statement.
In a letter to Poth, Florida Gov. Rick Scott made the case for his state joining FirstNet simply.
“I believe this is in the best interest for Florida taxpayers,” Scott wrote.
In the Pacific Northwest, a Washington official said the state regularly joins its southern neighbor, Oregon, in battling such natural disasters as wildfires — so the two states collaborated on a decision announced Dec. 26, to join FirstNet.
The pair issued an RFP in mid-October, with responses due the following month, aimed at understanding the risks to opting in or out, said Sheri Sawyer, senior policy adviser for Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.
In Washington and Oregon, as in Colorado, an AT&T commitment to “additional tower investments” proved key.
“Having that regional approach to these crises is what’s going to save lives,” Sawyer said in an interview. “They offered more sites and they offered more deployables, which are cells [sites] on wheels. In a disaster event they can be deployed within hours where existing towers may have failed.”
"Whether we’re responding to wildfires in eastern Washington or floods in western Washington, our first responders must have a reliable communications network and this process was about ensuring we get them the best service possible,” Inslee said in a statement.
Other states that issued their own RFPs included Colorado, Michigan, Mississippi and Rhode Island. Common issues included the costs associated with opting out and needing to join later, as well as concerns about coverage and retaining local control.
In a recent interview, a FirstNet spokesperson characterized potential reconstitution costs incurred by states opting out and failing to create networks, then needing to join FirstNet as "estimates of the very worst-case numbers," and said FirstNet has worked closely with all states and territories to help them make the most informed decisions of whether to opt in or out.
Colorado issued a conditional award in November to a team that included U.S.-based Rivada and the Australian financial services provider Macquarie Group — a pact subsequently invalidated when it became the 40th state to join FirstNet.
A key turning point was the commitment by AT&T to provide 35 more cell sites to enhance coverage, Denver Fire Chief Eric Tade, the FirstNet Colorado Governing Body chairman, told Government Technology recently.
“Essentially they’re adding capacity where there was no capacity,” Tade said. “Which let us focus on addressing some well-known gaps in coverage as well as expanding coverage in rural Colorado.”
Editor's note: Updates were made to reflect California's opt-in announcement after the original story was published, as well as additional information regarding deadlines for territories.
Theo Douglas is a staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes covering municipal, county and state governments, business and breaking news. He has a Bachelor's degree in Newspaper Journalism and a Master's in History, both from California State University, Long Beach.