How states can opt out of FirstNet

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Congress set aside about $7 billion from a lucrative spectrum auction to fund the FirstNet interoperable mobile broadband system for first responders. However, the legislation allows states to opt out of participating in the system, provided that state systems can share data with the national one.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which oversees FirstNet, offered a glimpse of what states might need to do in order to opt out. In a July 19 Federal Register notice, NTIA asks states and others for input on the proposed guidelines it is developing under its State Alternative Plan Program (SAPP).

The guidance includes the criteria states may use to negotiate a spectrum capacity lease with FirstNet and apply for NTIA grants to fund the construction of their own networks, according to FirstNet.

Comments on the draft guidance are due by Aug. 18.

Under a complex plan, FirstNet must offer to build radio access networks (RANs) in states. Alternatively, states may choose to build their own networks to connect to FirstNet, shouldering the costs and responsibilities. They must apply to do so under the SAPP.

According to FirstNet, RANs are the basic networks states will need to seamlessly connect their first responders to the FirstNet network.

"The first guidance we are releasing today respects each state's right to choose to build its own radio access network, while still ensuring that first responders have access to a nationwide broadband network that will improve their ability to respond to emergencies and save lives," NTIA Administrator Lawrence Strickling said in a July 19 statement.

"States are reviewing the guidance," Elena Waskey, press secretary at the National Governors Association, told FCW.

In testimony during a June 21 hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Jeffrey McLeod, director of the NGA Center for Best Practices' Homeland Security and Public Safety Division, said states were concerned about FirstNet's ability to provide reliable coverage in rural areas. He also said state officials want more input into FirstNet's planning.

The Association of Public Safety Communications Officials-International declined to comment on the opt-out guidance and pointed FCW to an April 2015 filing that questioned why states would consider opting out.

"There is simply no reason for any state to opt out, which entails an arduous process and shifts the important responsibility to implement a radio access network from FirstNet to the state," the filing states. "Compared to any state, FirstNet has significant advantages provided by Congress to achieve the best overall solution for the country. Yet a state that seeks to construct its own RAN introduces many serious risks to the communications capabilities of first responders within its own borders as well as those across the nation."

FirstNet expects to select a lead vendor for the project by November and have final deployment plans in place next year.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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