On 29 December, FirstNet and the US Department of Commerce announced that all 50 states, together with the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands have accepted FirstNet and AT&T's proposals to design and build a broadband network for country’s public safety community.

Guam, the Pacific Territories of American Samoa, and the Mariana Islands have until March 12, 2018, to make their decision and the FirstNet website now indicates that Guam and American Samoa have opted in.

“With all 50 states and several territories participating in FirstNet, we have a clear path to delivering a truly nationwide broadband network for first responders," said US secretary of commerce Wilbur Ross. "We are now one step closer to delivering on a key recommendation of the 9/11 Commission, and I commend the governors and leaders of these states and territories for demonstrating their commitment to the safety of all Americans."

“This is a landmark day and monumental achievement for public safety – one that has been years in the making,” said First Responder Network Authority Board Chair Sue Swenson. “There are many who said this network would never happen, but public safety never gave up on their network. Because of their vision and hard-fought efforts, I can proudly say that this life-saving network [will be] a reality across America. FirstNet is going to enhance the safety and security of our first responders and the people they serve.”

The statutory 90-day decision period for Governors to “opt-in” or “opt-out” of the FirstNet proposed Radio Access Network (RAN) buildout plan concluded on December 28, and every state has accepted the FirstNet deployment plan. New Hampshire, which originally signalled that it was going to opt-out (which could have led to the state's public safety broadband network being built by Rivada Networks), chose in the end to change its mind, while California was the final state to opt-in.

“With every state saying `yes’ to the FirstNet plan, America’s first responders now have a nationwide interoperable network they can rely on 24/7/365 – like their mission,” said FirstNet’s CEO Mike Poth. “I applaud these governors for their decision and congratulate public safety for its advocacy and partnership throughout the process. With more than 50 states and territories participating in FirstNet, public safety is assured of an enduring, self-sufficient network to serve them for years to come.”

“Our FirstNet offering will forever change the way first responders communicate,” said Chris Sambar, senior vice president, AT&T – FirstNet. “Securing 53 opt-ins is significant for the public safety personnel that this network will serve. And we’re honored to give first responders across the country quick access to this life-saving solution.”

AT&T will spend about $40 billion over the life of the contract to deliver FirstNet. FirstNet will provide it with success-based payments of $6.5 billion over the next five years as well as 20 MHz of high-value spectrum to support the network build-out.

As for the year ahead, FirstNet will issue work orders to deploy the radio access networks in all 50 states, Washington DC, and the two opt-in territories in early 2018. This will give AT&T the green light to expand FirstNet’s footprint and deploy Band 14 capacity and coverage throughout the nation. The FirstNet public safety core is scheduled to be operational in March. This will provide full encryption of public safety data over FirstNet and provide end-to-end cyber security. FirstNet subscribers will also have access to a dedicated Security Operations Center, offering 24/7/365 support.

FirstNet will also roll out an app store that will provide FirstNet-approved mobile apps optimised for public safety use over the first responder network. This will be supported by FirstNet-focused hackathons to help fuel development.

2018 will also see the roll out of a range of “next-generation” public safety tools, including mission-critical push-to-talk and device offerings, like bring your own device (BYOD) to bring value to urban and rural first responders.

AT&T’s main rivals – those encouraging states to opt-out and/or looking to build the networks for opt-out states – were Verizon and Rivada Networks.

“2017 generated significant dialogue regarding public-safety communications. That was good and it drew increased attention to this critical customer segment. 2018 will be the year that actions and results speak louder than words,” Verizon said in a statement.

“For Verizon, that means continued leadership in network excellence by launching our dedicated public safety network and continuing to lead the market with the introduction of products, services and other advanced technologies designed for first responders—all running on the country’s only public safety-grade LTE network."

A Verizon spokesperson highlighted the fact that when states opt-in to FirstNet there is no requirement for public safety agencies to use FirstNet and they can instead choose to retain the services of their current commercial mobile broadband provider.

Rivada Networks issued a statement on 21 December, calling for state governors to opt-out. It noted that “on December 19—just nine days before Governor’s decisions are due, and 81 days after the review period began—FirstNet quietly, and under cover of an asserted right to secrecy, radically changed the terms of “opt out” through a revision to its draft spectrum lease agreement.

“This dramatic change makes opting out much less risky and more attractive to states, and that is to be applauded. But the manner in which it was done and the timing of the change leaves states with no opportunity to fully weigh its ramifications. It also seriously harms states that had earlier expressed an intention to opt in under the threat of “draconian” penalties for opting out. In some cases, those states canceled legally required RFPs or ended them without award, based on threats that FirstNet now seeks quietly to disown.

“It is very troubling that this dramatic shift―in favour of state autonomy―has been communicated as a minor adjustment, under cover of confidential emails.”

In the case of California, Verizon issued a statement that said that it had “after carefully and extensively reviewing the State of California's public-safety-network RFP requirements… chosen not to bid on the RFP. Technical and financial requirements dictated by FirstNet's draft spectrum management lease agreement (SMLA) saddled the state of California—through no fault of its own—with onerous and vaguely defined mandates in its RFP that impacted our ability to create a response we believe best served public safety and Verizon.

“Vigorous competition that allows the industry and the marketplace to continue to grow and innovate is in the best interest of public safety and should be everyone's shared goal. Instead, we believe FirstNet and its corporate partner are rigging the game to stifle true competition.”

According to a Verizon spokesperson, one of the most difficult issues it faced was the requirement that all communications from FirstNet public-safety users in “opt-out” states must be sent to the FirstNet AT&T operated LTE core network.

“We're not prepared to have our public safety customers run on a network where we can't control their ability to connect or their customer experience,” they said.

New Hampshire’s governor, Chris Sununu, issued a statement that said: “Following our decision to opt-out and go with the Rivada plan that provides better coverage, more system control and an opportunity to share in the revenue streams of the business, we proceeded to have extensive discussions with other Governors across the country to help them understand the benefits of such a system. Many of these states had previously expressed serious interest in pursuing an independent opt-out path.

“While we were successful in working with FirstNet to remove the unreasonable fees and penalties, the decision deadline of December 28th approached too quickly for these other states to feel confident in an opt-out decision. As a result, it now appears likely that no other states will opt-out."

"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..."

Author: Sam Fenwick