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Time Ticking for States to Opt In or Out of FirstNet

The federal government wants to create a single network for emergency communications, and it’s up to states to decide whether they want to join.

Within the next year or two, governors will need to decide if they want to join the federal government’s new nationwide public safety communications network. And although the decision may seem far away, now is the time to prepare.

The First Responder Network Authority—the independent federal entity better known as FirstNet—is in the process of drawing up specific network designs for each state. Right now, a federal grant program is paying states to tally potential users and inventory radio towers and other gear that could be used by the network. Once those network plans hit governors’ desks, the clock starts ticking. Under federal legislation signed last year, states have 90 days to opt into or out of the plan.

The goal of the new broadband network is to finally put the nation’s emergency responders on a common communications platform, eliminating potentially deadly situations where police or fire agencies from different jurisdictions can’t talk to each other during major disasters. In addition, the high-speed network opens the door to advanced public safety capabilities like piping live crime-scene video to mobile devices carried by police officers, or retrieving identity and criminal history information by simply snapping a photo of a suspect.

But to deliver on those promises FirstNet needs to offer a national service that’s better than existing networks used by state and local agencies. Jeff Johnson, a retired fire chief who is now a member of the FirstNet Board of Directors, acknowledged as much during a meeting of state CIOs last month in Philadelphia. “We think the cost needs to be at or below what you currently pay for your networks,” Johnson said, “and we need to bring benefits of a network that’s built specifically for public safety.”

That won’t be easy. Such a network has never been built before. “We’re going to get things wrong occasionally, and we’ll need to backtrack,” Johnson said. “Give us some room here.”

But what if states don’t like what they see? Rejecting the plan presents its own set of challenges. Opting out of FirstNet doesn’t mean the network won’t come to your state; it just means the feds won’t build it for you. Instead, you’ll build your own network—following standards that allow it to plug into the national network—and pick up at least 20 percent of the cost.

States opting out will have just 180 days to get their own network plans approved by the Federal Communications Commssion and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and then release a request for proposals for the project.

Furthermore, governors may not be able to make the opt-out decision alone, says Bill Schrier, who, as a senior policy adviser to the Washington state CIO, serves as point man for the FirstNet deployment there. “Let’s suppose that it costs $100 million to build the network in Washington state,” Schier says. “If the governor opts out, he needs to cough up at least $20 million. That typically would require legislative authorization.”

Authorization would need to come quickly, too, because states that don’t answer within the 90-day decision period will be automatically added to the federal network, Johnson said in Philadelphia.

No matter where your state stands on FirstNet, it’s time to start paying attention. With a series of big decisions and tight deadlines on the horizon, governors and their advisers need to get up to speed.

Schrier’s plan is to engage the feds early. “I’m hoping for an interactive process,” he says. “Hopefully, they don’t just take a bunch of data and dump a plan on my desk. I want them to ask questions and collaborate with us, so that when the design is done, we’ll be able to properly advise the governor to support it.”

That sounds like the right approach.

This column originally appeared in GOVERNING magazine.

Caroline Cournoyer is a staff writer for Governing.