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AT&T Wants Tough Opt-Out Standards for FirstNet While States Seek Alternatives

In a May 22 filing with the Federal Communications Commission, AT&T sought tough opt-out standards for states looking for an alternative to the wireless broadband public safety network that it is developing.

In March AT&T was awarded the $6.5 billion contract to build and operate the nationwide network, dubbed FirstNet. However, the legislation that authorizes FirstNet also authorizes a state to develop its own alternative on the spectrum carved out for the network, as long as the alternative is interoperable with the FirstNet core.

FirstNet, AT&T, and other potential providers of core network capabilities are currently in heated discussions with the FCC as to how the opt-out process will work, what the requirements will be, and how alternative networks will function.

AT&T has argued that opt-out should be an arduous and lengthy process. A May 22 FCC filing from AT&T said the process is difficult “by statutory design. And that is how it should be, given the enormously high stakes at issue.”

Further, AT&T said that the legislation authorizing FirstNet “plainly precludes an opt-out state from operating its own public safety broadband core network”–an interpretation disputed by others involved in the process.

AT&T believes that allowing states to opt out will add even more complication to an already intricate process. Additionally, given that the goal of FirstNet is to establish a nationwide network for first responders, allowing opt-outs could complicate communications in cross-jurisdictional crises.

States will likely receive draft plans from FirstNet before the end of June, according to John Donovan, chief strategy officer and group president of AT&T Technology and Operations.

Receiving draft plans starts a decision process for states to determine whether they will develop their own network, or work with AT&T on FirstNet. However, due to the complicated process to develop an alternative network, Donovan believes most states will opt for FirstNet.

“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 recent telecom conference.

Donovan’s beliefs aside, at least nine states have begun looking for alternatives. However, states will have to move quickly after receiving the final plan from FirstNet.

According to a draft report and order released last week by the FCC, governors would have 90 days after they receive their final state plan to give their opt-out notification. After the notification, states have 180 days to develop an alternative plan and issue a request for proposal (RFP) and select a winning bidder. States are then granted 60 days to submit their alternative plans to the FCC.

The draft also notes that the FCC will not grant extensions and if the alternative plan is rejected, the state would default to the Federal plan. However, states have the ability to appeal the decision to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

In spite of the complicated process to opt-out of the FirstNet network, at least nine states are considering alternative plans. Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin have all publicly announced that they are considering alternatives.

States are seeking alternatives for a variety of reasons. Some are seemingly expecting to follow through with FirstNet, but view the RFP process as a way to dot their i’s and cross their t’s. However, others have expressed frustration with the bureaucracy of a Federally mandated process or are concerned that a nationwide network won’t be as tied to the state’s interests as a locally developed network would be.

The FCC expects to finalize state opt-out procedures and protocols at its June 22 meeting.

Kate DeNardi
About Kate DeNardi
Kate DeNardi is 21st Century State & Local's Assistant Copy & Production Editor, covering Cybersecurity, Education, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs
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