FCC sets criteria for state FirstNet networks

Shutterstock image (by kstudija): telecommunications radio tower. 

The Federal Communications Commission has approved the benchmarks it will use to evaluate  alternative network proposals for states that choose to opt out of FirstNet, the national, AT&T-built nationwide, interoperable wireless network planned for emergency responders.

The unanimous June 22 decision by the FCC's three commissioners will help ensure any state-built portions of the network are interoperable with the core network, as required under the law. 

"Today's decision is intended to provide states with a fair and meaningful opportunity to pursue their own network plans without causing undue delay and while still ensuring the integrity of the nationwide network," a commission statement said.

FirstNet awarded AT&T the 25-year, $6.5 billion network contract for the nationwide network on March 30.

On June 19, FirstNet and AT&T took the next big step, making individual network plans for states and territories available online. The plans are in the hands of states to review and build on, or to discard in favor of their own networks, if they are interoperable with the FirstNet nationwide network.

In a statement following the commission's June 22 vote, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said the agency's ruling establishes procedures and timelines that will govern state decisions to opt out of FirstNet's radio access network, or RAN, in favor of their own.

Specifically, the ruling sets the timeline for states to provide notification of their opt-out decisions and file plans with the FCC; provides the information states should include in their plans to comply with FirstNet interoperability; and details the technical criteria the commission will use to evaluate state plans.

In a statement, FirstNet CEO Mike Poth commended the FCC for taking "this important next step in its rulemaking proceeding for alternative state plans," and added that the agency "has an important role to play in ensuring the interoperability of the network."

Some telecommunications providers are targeting states interested in pursuing their own plans.

Southern Linc's Director, Legal and External Affairs Michael Rosenthal told FCW in a June 22 statement that his company "is very pleased" with the FCC ruling. The company had argued  that the FCC "lacks the authority" to manage contractual processes or opt-out notification processes. It maintained that the nationwide network is meant to be made up of multiple core networks of state RAN and FirstNet infrastructure.

"We think the FCC's decision not to reject state opt-out plans where the state employs its own core network elements is particularly important," Rosenthal said.

In 2018, he said the company looked forward "to working with interested organizations in Alabama and Georgia to determine how we can provide the best mission critical communications solution for them."

The FCC's review of plans, however, isn't meant to be an easy pass, according to at least one commissioner.

Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said in a statement that she believes in FirstNet's mission "and personally hope[s] that each state will elect to opt-in." However, she noted that in creating FirstNet, Congress expressly afforded states the ability to opt-out. "If some say that opting out is an impossible feat, my answer is that was not Congress' intent. Congress intended to give states a meaningful, if difficult, opportunity to decide if it is in their best interest to submit an alternate plan to the commission."

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 or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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