FirstNet and the Benefits of Scale

Communications systems employed by public safety agencies are increasingly moving from legacy architectures to all-IP networks. Flexible capabilities offered by reliable, high-speed broadband give these agencies new opportunities to better serve the community with new capabilities while gaining important efficiencies. In this era of change, APCO International hosts an annual conference focusing on the opportunity and challenges presented by the emerging broadband technology. This year, APCO International held its 2017 Broadband Summit on May 16 and 17 in Washington, D.C. As the first major event since the US government awarded the FirstNet contract to AT&T, the Summit was an important opportunity for both FirstNet and AT&T to step into the spotlight.

For FirstNet, the months of April, May and June in 2017 are a critical time. First, the agency must work with AT&T, its new private partner in a novel public-private partnership (PPP), to produce the 50 plus State Plans that detail how the FirstNet PPP proposes radio access network capabilities get realized in each state and US territory. When completed in June, these plans must be delivered to each Governor.

As FirstNet and AT&T toil behind the scenes to generate these plans, the agency must carefully shape the external conversation around opt-in and opt-out choices facing each Governor. This choice, a reflection of the enabling legislation's nod to local control over public safety operations, is an important step in the process of network deployment. FirstNet took advantage of the Summit to deliver several presentations to the audience, including keynotes from FirstNet CEO Mike Poth and AT&T. While FirstNet cannot argue against opt-out, the agency and its partner can offer assurances that bolster the case for sticking with FirstNet. At the Summit, these assurances were delivered.

Mike Poth noted the heavy lifting that is in progress to produce State Plans. He stated that plan production is moving quickly and that these plans will be delivered in mid-June, approximately three months ahead of schedule. To bolster the case for FirstNet, Mr. Poth pointed to the advantages of tapping AT&T's $180 billion of deployed assets. In addition to bringing speed to the process, FirstNet gains economy of scale benefits that come with a leading mobile operator. In a surprising twist, Mr. Poth pointed to the potential of FirstNet and its customers to ride the 5G technology wave as AT&T moves towards the new technology. 

AT&T's keynote presentation was designed to give Governors ample reasons to select FirstNet over alternative local plans. By opening all available AT&T spectrum bands to FirstNet users, with full protection of priority and preemption, AT&T has set a high bar for alternative offers. The company points to upwards of 120 MHz of spectrum holdings across the region, with radio support in each of the key spectrum regions: low bands for coverage and high bands for capacity. The promise of supporting FirstNet users in all bands is important because it means surge overflow capacity, should the 20 MHz of FirstNet Band 14 capacity get exhausted in an emergency, and early availability of FirstNet service before a single Band 14 radio is deployed. This represents a sharp acceleration of the FirstNet radio access timeline. 

If the fast-pace of FirstNet radio access availability is not enough to tip a Governor's decision, AT&T also committed to supplying 72 dedicated deployable cell sites (Cell on Wheels, Trucks, etc.) to augment its large existing fleet of deployable disaster response nodes. What is unclear, however, is the extent of local control over the dispatch of a FirstNet deployable. Do states have one resource always at its disposal? Can states augment the deployable system inventory by turning to equipment from network suppliers that AT&T does not use (e.g. Parallel Wireless, Redline, and others)?

The strongest argument, however, for embrace of the FirstNet PPP may actually have nothing to do with gaining cell sites. It is the prospect of a state avoiding the complexity of technology evolution. State and local governments have limited funds and personnel resources to pursue new technology. By selecting an AT&T foundation for mobile broadband networks supporting emergency services, states will avoid the technology refresh burden that typically fails on local shoulders. With FirstNet, AT&T takes on the responsibility of upgrading sites while hiding complexity from the FirstNet users.

While FirstNet and AT&T can not disparage competing alternatives that may come to the attention of a Governor, APCO has no such constraints. Before the Summit, Jeff Cohen, APCO's Chief Counsel & Director of Government Relations, penned a blog delivering a sharp message on the concept of opt-out. In his post and in remarks delivered at the Summit, Mr. Cohen argues that opt-out is a false choice. He points to the significant risks Governors face due to uncertain pricing, nascent unproven technology approaches and stiff hurdles in the federal approval process. But his key point is that states cannot profit from running a FirstNet radio access system using FirstNet's Band 14 asset. By law, any revenue that comes in from the operation must return to the network in the form of construction, maintenance and operations support. These remarks are aimed against Rivada Networks and its move to secure state RFPs as counters to the FirstNet state plans. Several states have conducted RFP processes to ensure its Governor has two choices when the FirstNet plan arrives.

My Take

I have a very positive take on the progress made by FirstNet and AT&T since the March award. Indications are that FirstNet's past consultation efforts have born fruit and that the coming State Plans will closely match State and Territory requirements. In part, this is thanks to the national scale offered by AT&T. To be sure, the choice of the FirstNet PPP radio access network means some degree of local is lost. Choices must be made on network expansion and deployable availability. Future choices may not go in a state's favor. But the opt-in remains the best path forward for all Governors as it rapidly brings the state's first responders access to affordable mobile broadband services with priority and preemption. When it comes to mobile radio access networks, scale matters. And the FirstNet/AT&T PPP represents true scale that can speed deployment, facilitate device availability and future-proof the service offer.