All in for FirstNet

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Although 53 states and U.S. territories have officially opted into the FirstNet wireless communications network, some are cautious about vendor AT&T and the 25-year deployment plan.

AT&T, the network provider chosen by FirstNet last March to build its nationwide public-safety broadband wireless network, said on Dec. 28 that 50 states, two territories and the District of Columbia officially opted in to the plan.

The network will be funded with $6.5 billion of government money and a planned $43 million expenditure by AT&T.  The telecom giant gets access to highly desirable spectrum reserved for the system, which it can use on its commercial service when not in demand by priority users.

AT&T and FirstNet had set Dec. 28 as the deadline for states to either opt in to the federally backed network plans drawn up and distributed by FirstNet or commit to Radio Access Network (RAN) plans from other network providers.

"We are grateful to have every state say 'yes' to the FirstNet solution," said Michael Poth, FirstNet CEO. "The scale of participation by the states and territories is significant for many reasons," he said.

American Samoa, Guam and Northern Marianas Islands have until March to decide on their plans, according to FirstNet.

A few big states, such as California, Florida and New York waited until the final day to decide to go with FirstNet, while a notable state hold-out ultimately abandoned its plan to use an alternative provider's RAN.

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu said on Dec. 7 his state would opt out of the FirstNet plan in favor of a RAN built by Rivada Networks.

Only days later, however, the governor reversed his decision. In a Dec. 28 statement, Sununu indicated he didn't want to be the only opt-out state.

"While Rivada's plan remains the better option for New Hampshire, I have determined that the additional risk associated with being the only state to opt-out creates too high a barrier for New Hampshire to continue down the opt-out path alone," Sununu said. The state had "been successful in working with First Net to remove the unreasonable fees and penalties" in the run-up to the deadline, he added.

Brian Carney, Rivada's vice president for corporate communications, told FCW that "we understand what they did and we mutually agreed" to part ways. The rushed nature of the decision process, he said, ultimately forced some states to give up on viable alternatives. In the end, said Carney, New Hampshire would have been "sticking its neck out against AT&T."

Carney said opt-in and planning deadlines set by AT&T were intended to artificially pressure states to get in line. He noted that California, Florida and New York all waited until the Dec. 28 deadline to commit to FirstNet.

"California made the same kind of considered calculation" before committing at the last minute to FirstNet, Carney said.

Mark Ghilarducci, director of the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services, said in a Dec. 28 letter to FirstNet's Poth that the state "expects additional progress" in interoperability, security and site hardening under the plan.

Ghilarducci also noted that in light of 2017's long list of natural disasters, additional cell site hardening including more backup power sources and redundant backhaul connections are needed.

"We are very pleased to have California join FirstNet and are committed to providing the state's public safety community with an enduring, interoperable network that will meet the needs of their lifesaving mission," Poth said in a Jan. 2 statement provided to FCW.

Rivada is repositioning itself to go after opportunities abroad and to sell spectrum-sharing technology to U.S. users.  

This story was updated Jan. 3 to clarify Rivada Network's role in seeking to provide services to states which chose to opt out of FirstNet.

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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