AT&T seeks tough standards for FirstNet opt-outs

Telecom providers argue about the role and impact of state-run networks on FirstNet's nationwide public safety broadband network.

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AT&T, which won the $6.5 billion contract to build and operate the planned wireless broadband public safety network FirstNet, wants tough standards for states that want to opt out and build their own systems.

The legislation that authorizes FirstNet allows states to run their own systems on the spectrum carved out for the network, provided they are interoperable with the FirstNet core.

AT&T, FirstNet and potential providers of core network capabilities to states such as Southern Linc are battling it out at the Federal Communications Commission over how state opt-out networks should be developed.

Opting out of the national network, AT&T argued in a May 22 filing, is an exceptionally difficult and costly process for states. "That is by statutory design. And that is how it should be, given the enormously high stakes at issue," AT&T's filing said.

According to AT&T, opt-out states will complicate an already complex process and could ultimately compromise the effort to establish a nationwide wireless emergency broadband network for first responders and complicate emergency communications in cross-jurisdictional crises.

The law that established FirstNet "plainly precludes an opt-out state from operating its own public safety broadband core network" AT&T said.

AT&T won the contract for the nationwide network at the end of March. The telecom company was the only bidder left standing after others dropped out of the competition and a federal claims court's action.

The $6.5 billion award represents the government contribution to the effort. AT&T has already announced plans to invest $40 billion in FirstNet over the life of the contract. For the vendor, the payback comes in offering services to paying customers over the highly desirable 700-MHz spectrum that comes with the award.

Rivada Mercury, which lost a pre-award contract protest, said at the time of the award that it planned to continue to pursue contracts for interoperable state radio access networks. At least five states have issued requests for proposals that give Rivada or another provider an opportunity to build out a network in their states.

FirstNet plans to issue draft plans to states and territories to review before the end of June, according to John Donovan, chief strategy officer and group president of AT&T Technology and Operations.

The proposals kick off a decision process by states on whether they opt-out of the FirstNet plans and build their own RANs.

"I think once the states have an opportunity to evaluate in totality what it means to be in and what would be necessary to be out, I think it's a very compelling proposition for the states to join, and we expected that most if not all will," Donovan said at a May 31 telecom conference in New York City.

Donovan also said that he expected states to be able to access FirstNet capabilities in 2017 via AT&T's commercial network, before the deployment of the 700-MHz spectrum. Donovan said that first responders will be able to get prioritization on the network in an emergency through a feature called "ruthless pre-emption."

FirstNet stressed that the draft blueprints are not an opportunity to make extensive changes that would skirt the wider AT&T-provided network.

But regional carrier Southern Linc is disputing this reading of the FirstNet statute. In a May 9 FCC filing, Southern Linc argued that the authorizing legislation mandated that existing commercial or other communications infrastructure be an integral part of the project. That includes "existing core elements operated by states or their network partners," it said.

Southern Linc also told the FCC in its early May filing that the agency's review of state plans are limited to whether they comply with the FCC's technical interoperability requirements and with FirstNet's nationwide public safety broadband network requirements.

As long as those two requirements are met, said Southern Linc, the FCC "lacks the authority" to demand more, including managing contractual processes or opt-out notification processes. The company maintains that the nationwide network is meant to be made up of multiple core networks of state RAN and FirstNet infrastructure.

In a May 26 filing, FirstNet called Southern Linc's arguments for multiple core networks "disingenuous," arguing that the act mandated that FirstNet "ensure the establishment of a nationwide, interoperable public safety broadband network." Southern Linc, it said, should have raised the issue two years ago when FirstNet asked about it.

"Accordingly, this issue is no longer subject to debate and should be dismissed out of hand," FirstNet said.

State opt-out procedures and protocols are expected to be finalized at a June 18 FCC meeting.

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