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After Considering Its Own Network, Colorado Joins FirstNet

Having weighed their options for coverage and control carefully, Colorado officials will join FirstNet.

After years of planning, negotiating and considering their options carefully, state of Colorado officials have announced the state will join FirstNet, the dedicated, nationwide first responder network.

The news, delivered by Gov. John Hickenlooper on Dec. 18, came 10 days before the Dec. 28 deadline FirstNet has given states and territories to opt out, after which it will essentially implement build-out plans created with partner AT&T and submitted to each state.

Colorado's decision was not a complete surprise, but authorities scrutinized their decision particularly closely.

As in Michigan and Mississippi, Colorado staffers issued an RFP to study standing up its own network.

Like officials in New Hampshire — which earlier this month became the first state to opt out of FirstNet — Colorado in November made a conditional award in November to U.S.-based Rivada Networks and the Australian financial services provider Macquarie Group.

New Hampshire approved its own contract with Rivada last year, on a no-cost, no-obligation basis until it reached a decision, state officials said.

Colorado’s decision to join FirstNet will invalidate its pact with Rivada, as Hickenlooper signed a contract to become the network's 40th member state or territory during a press event on Facebook Live.

But the move to join FirstNet, which already offers priority communication to users on its existing network; and last week added the pre-emption capability to emergency users on AT&T’s LTE network, indicates officials are confident in its ability to cover a state that is famously rugged and farflung.

FirstNet won’t be completely built out nationwide until sometime around the year 2020 but its core network is expected to be complete during March 2018, according to a representative. And in August, Verizon announced plans to build its own private network for public safety communications.

But Hickenlooper’s decision, informed by members of the FirstNet Colorado Governing Body (FNCGB) of public safety officials and others, reflects, he said, a realization that joining FirstNet will enable the state to expand public safety in remote areas as well as enhance services to all residents.

“That’s the kind of double benefit that we had always hoped to be able to get from this process,” Hickenlooper said during the press conference, expressing appreciation to AT&T, which has a 25-year contract with FirstNet for its commitment to leverage existing infrastructure “wherever possible.”

The governor acknowledged the choice “requires continued engagement by communities across the state,” and thanked those participating in the process for their time, especially FNCGB members.

“And we really appreciate, and I can’t say loudly enough, … how hard you’ve fought to make sure that we’ve got the benefits, the maximum benefits that we could possibly obtain through this whole process of negotiation,” Hickenlooper added.

In earlier interviews with Government Technology, FNCGB members had identified potential issues with joining FirstNet.

Officials had said they were worried that partnering with FirstNet could still leave remote areas without coverage, and cost the state the local control it might have had over its own network.

Another concern was the possibility of reconstitution payments should Colorado opt out and have its independent network fail, requiring it to join FirstNet; and the provider to rebuild or complete its network.

A FirstNet spokesman said earlier this month that the provider works closely with all states and territories to help them reach decisions to opt in or out; and that potential reconstitution payments in the millions represent "estimates of the very worst-case numbers.”

Denver Fire Chief Eric Tade, the FNCGB chairman, thanked AT&T and FirstNet during the press event for “committing an additional 35 sites to the state of Colorado to really ensure that we start off right and ensure that we have public safety broadband coverage all throughout Colorado.”

In an interview, Tade characterized the state’s topography as “extremely difficult … given the Rocky Mountains there,” but said officials believe the 35 additional cellular sites will help connect areas that lack coverage.

“Essentially, they’re adding capacity where there was no capacity. Exactly how they’re configuring that, I think, remains to be seen,” Tade said, meaning that it’s not yet clear whether AT&T would build new sites or co-locate additional equipment on existing infrastructure.

Jeff Bratcher, FirstNet chief technology officer, said at the event that being the 40th state or territory to join should continue Colorado’s decade of being “on the leading edge of public safety broadband and testing public safety broadband technologies.”

“Gov. Hickenlooper, with your decision today, Colorado’s public safety entities can make use of cutting-edge broadband technology and also know that FirstNet is located right in their backyard,” Bratcher said extending “an open invitation” to public safety personnel to visit the company’s Boulder, Colo., location to look in on core network preparations.

Theo Douglas is assistant managing editor for Industry Insider — California, and before that was 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.