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FirstNet Makes Progress, But Cost and Quality Concerns Remain

FirstNet, the wireless network dedicated to first responders, hopes to nail down a 25-year, $100 billion contract before the next election.

The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) is moving fast toward its goal of a dedicated nationwide public safety communications network. On May 13, the federal agency published an updated map that gives an overview of the states’ progress in preparing for the network, which is expected to launch within the next couple of years.

Every state but Mississippi has met with FirstNet for an initial consultation, and all but New Jersey and Mississippi are included in FirstNet’s data collection process. FirstNet’s current phase is to consult with the states’ governance bodies, and 12 states have completed this phase. These meetings are centered around FirstNet’s goal of awarding and approving a 25-year vendor contract for the network by this November, after having only issued the RFP in January.

FirstNet wants states to get all stakeholders aligned so they’re ready to approve individual state plans when they go out, said Dave Buchanan, the authority's director of consultation. FirstNet is doing as much planning as possible now so there are no unpleasant surprises later when states will have limited time — just some months — to approve FirstNet’s plans, he explained.

Each state has its own challenges, he said, citing Vermont as an example.

“They know that they’re going to go through a governor’s election in the fall and they believe they have the right people who have been involved to date, but we also realize there’s a number of folks who are going to want to review this process who won’t be in until after the election,” he said.

Asked to give states one piece of advice, Buchanan said states should be thoughtful in considering which parties should be included in the planning process.

FirstNet met with Washington state stakeholders on April 21, said Bill Schrier, Seattle Police Department chief information officer and Washington’s FirstNet point of contact. Schrier said one of the state’s biggest concerns is the federal agency’s aggressive timeline. Vendor responses to the RFP are due May 31.

“Based on those responses, FirstNet intends to award a 25-year contract to develop and operate the network nationwide in 56 states and territories that is probably worth $100 billion,” Schrier said. “FirstNet intends to not just decide who the winning vendor is but also sign a contract by November of this year. So that only gives them from May until November to actually evaluate all the proposals, work through all the legal stuff with all these attorneys — the vendors have lots of attorneys and the federal government has lots of attorneys — and then award this 25-year contract by November.”

This aggressive timeline places network availability around late 2017.

Having a network available by the end of next year is aggressive, but with public interest from AT&T and rumors of interest from Verizon, such a timeline is possible. And though the timeline is aggressive, an interoperable and dedicated public safety network can’t come too soon, said Schrier.

“During the day, near Amazon headquarters in downtown Seattle, the commercial networks get slow,” Schrier said. “And that means they get slow for responders too — EMTs and their mobile computers and police officers and their mobile computers — and that’s just during a normal weekday without an incident that might include a traffic jam or something. So there’s some urgency from a first responder point of view to get in a network where they’ve got priority.”

Schrier agreed that getting the state’s stakeholders aligned is the most important task that states face in preparation of FirstNet. In Washington’s case, it meant gathering the associations that represent those who will use the network — the police chiefs associations and 911 call center groups. The other set of users who need to be involved are the state agencies who engage in public safety functions: the Department of Transportation, the Department of Natural Resources and state police.

Perhaps the biggest issue for states, however, will be something beyond their control, Schrier said.

“My mantra to FirstNet is you have to have equal or better coverage than a commercial network and you’ve got to have equal or less cost than a commercial network,” he said. “Most fire departments and police departments are already using Verizon, AT&T, Sprint or T-Mobile, so it’s going to be hard for them to justify switching unless FirstNet’s coverage is equal or better and their cost is equal or less.”

Competitors to AT&T’s “aggressive” bid for the FirstNet contract include wholesale wireless company Rivada Networks, which was recently joined by former Sprint CFO Joseph Euteneuer. Some place Sprint’s possible participation as questionable. T-Mobile bowed out of the bidding in April, citing interest in increased spectrum purchases and LTE network buildouts.

Initial funding for FirstNet comes from a $7 billion federal budget, while the remaining revenue is expected to come from fees paid by state customers and profits from excess capacity sold to private companies and consumers.

Editor's note: This story was updated at 1 p.m. on May 18 to remove information about FirstNet needing to educate new board members.

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.