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Coverage, Cost Will Be Key Issues for Whether Colorado Opts in or out of FirstNet

The FirstNet Colorado Governing Body has made a conditional contract award to partners that could help the state stand up an independent public safety communications network — but a final decision whether to join FirstNet looms.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include additional input.

With roughly five weeks remaining before the Dec. 28 FirstNet opt-out deadline, some states are looking for alternatives to the nationwide first responder network. To date, 31 states and two territories have signed on.

But members of the FirstNet Colorado Governing Body (FNCGB) said they still have questions and will continue to compare FirstNet’s plan for their state with the promising joint proposal from a communications technology company and a global investment banking and financial services group.

The FNCGB, the public safety professionals charged with identifying potential partners and guiding Gov. John Hickenlooper’s final decision, issued an RFP for potential partners in March, should the state opt out and independently create its own portion of the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN).

On Nov. 17, the Governor’s Office of Information Technology (OIT) made an award to the U.S.-based communications tech company Rivada Networks and the Australian financial services provider Macquarie Group – conditional on the FNCGB ultimately making the recommendation to opt out and reaching a contractual agreement.

Similarly, officials in New Hampshire approved their own no-cost, no-obligation contract with Rivada last year, according to its Statewide Interoperability Coordinator John T. Stevens, the state's single point of contact for FirstNet. The state is one of five in New England that has issued its own RFP to explore opting out of the national network.

FNCGB members declined to discuss specifics about the Rivada-Macquarie proposal that impressed them. But the group’s Vice Chairman Bob Fifer, the mayor of Arvada, Colo., said the two entities’ strengths complement each other, bolstering any weaknesses, and called it “a very viable option” to present to Hickenlooper.

Fifer said he liked the proposal’s “local focus” as an alternative to joining a nationwide endeavor spearheaded by outside entities. His personal opinion, the mayor added, is that an opt-out scenario could stimulate rural broadband penetration and tele-education.

“If that network expands and it is a local-driven network as opposed to a national network, that may give us that opportunity,” Fifer said.

Brian Shepherd, Colorado’s broadband program chief operating officer in OIT and the state’s single point of contact, said Rivada’s “technical approach” combined with Macquarie’s “history of large financial infrastructure projects” made the pairing “a solid proposal.” In an email, Shepherd emphasized that as one member of the review committee, he was offering only his own perspective.

FNCGB Chairman Eric Tade, the fire chief in Denver, said regardless of whether the state opts in or out, he’s confident significant communications improvements will result. But Tade said officials continue to be concerned about the “penalties or challenges” that could follow an opt-out decision.

“I think it’s unclear exactly how the states may or may not be penalized. Right now, I don’t know if we know of there to be any advantage to opting out,” Tade said, emphasizing his group continues to scrutinize opt-in and opt-out scenarios.

Shepherd offered a different point of view.

“From the beginning, the process has been designed to prevent states from opting-out and the proposed penalties within the Spectrum Manager Lease Agreement (SMLA) are consistent with that approach,” he said, noting that if Colorado does decide to opt out, it will work with the state attorney general's office to negotiate agreement terms that are “fair and based on sound reasoning.”

“I don’t believe there was anything that called out that you’re going to get a big hand-slap if you opt out,” Fifer said, adding that members are nevertheless concerned Colorado could face penalties to join FirstNet if its own network doesn't succeed.

Fifer also said he believes the duration of FirstNet’s 25-year contract with AT&T would violate Colorado’s state constitution. Regardless of whether Colorado opts in or out of FirstNet, Tade and others said coverage and access are among the key issues they hope a more robust network would address.

Board member Chad Day, sheriff in rural Yuma County on the eastern border with Kansas and Nebraska, said coverage is the defining issue regardless of whether Colorado opts in or out.

Day, a member of the FNCGB’s scoring committee which reviewed RFP submissions, said nothing particularly stood out to him about the Rivada-Macquarie proposal, and pronounced himself “not terribly impressed with any of the options.”

“The challenge that we have here is that there are no, I’ll say ‘well-known’ commercial carriers. It’s not that they’re not here, but the big commercial carriers — AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, Verizon — they just don’t provide usable coverage out here from a law enforcement or a first responder perspective,” Day said.

FNCGB board member Randy Lesher, chief of Thompson Valley Emergency Medical Services, said the state has generally good coverage along the Front Range, but that more remote areas with lower populations don’t always.

“For Colorado, that’s the biggest issue, period. A lot of our folks are rural people, and I think in the overall picture of things, they do get left out,” Lesher said.

Tade called coverage the primary question “because clearly, if there’s no coverage, there’s no accessibility, there’s no option.”

“Ultimately, if you want true interoperability, you need to have coverage everywhere and then accessibility and cost are important options,” he continued.

The Thompson Valley chief agreed, adding: “You’re only as good as the amount of money you have when it comes to this stuff. How far can you go, but controlling your own destiny?”

Members declined to discuss potential costs of an independent state network relative to joining FirstNet, but Fifer said doing so could mean leveraging city, county and regional transportation assets including local fiber.

“Putting it together could be costly. That’s something that we have to be aware of. You’ve got to connect it all and you’ve got to manage it and maintain it,” Fifer said.

The effect states will have on FirstNet and to a potentially national network if a significant number should opt out remains unclear, but officials said it will likely have an impact.

“I think that’s a question that nobody really has an answer to,” Tade said, adding that it’s uncertain whether opt-out states would work separately on their own networks, or partner with other opt-outs.

Shepherd said that in an opt-out situation, state and local first responders would have the ability to directly oversee the network and ensure it meets the needs of first responders — whereas if the state joins FirstNet, it would have “no ability to enforce performance metrics or ensure that AT&T meets its commitments for coverage, performance or other key measures of success.”

“Opting-out would have no impact on security or interoperability as states would be required to meet the minimum technical standards as prescribed by the FCC's Interoperability Board,” Shepherd said.

Both options raise interesting questions, Fifer said, noting that individual agencies in opt-in states aren’t obligated to join FirstNet themselves. Once a final decision is reached, officials must embark on a different journey.

“We now have to say, ‘What does this mean to me?’ Opt in or opt out, we’re going to have to go through an education process,” the vice chairman said.

Theo Douglas is news editor for Government Technology. He was previously assistant managing editor for Industry Insider — California. His reporting experience includes covering municipal, county and state governments, business and breaking news.