Photo of Al Catalano

FirstNet recently selected AT&T as its partner to build, operate and maintain the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (“NPSBN”).  With AT&T leading the charge, network development appears to be on a fast track. In early June, the initial AT&T/FirstNet Radio Access Network (“RAN”) or coverage plans were made available electronically to all 50 states, the District of Columbia and territories of the United States (referred to as the “states” for purposes of this article). After a brief period for review, comment and consultations, the plans will be finalized and the Governor of each state must decide whether to accept the FirstNet plan or to seek an alternative coverage model through the state’s own Request For Proposal (“RFP”) process.

In evaluating its options, the goal of every state should be to obtain the best possible network coverage for its First Responders. The safety of First Responders and the public must be the primary concern in evaluating the AT&T/FirstNet plan. In order to conduct a reasonably thorough examination, the Governors and their teams must have access to the necessary financial, technical and legal information regarding AT&T’s commitments to deliver the NPSBN.

However, the states currently face a major obstacle in conducting their analysis. They do not have access to the underlying contract between AT&T and FirstNet. There have been numerous trade press reports and FirstNet/AT&T presentations about what the AT&T proposed roll-out will entail (e.g. access to the entire AT&T network, public safety usage targets, priority and preemption). However, no one from a state government is privy to the specific terms of the FirstNet/AT&T agreement. As with most agreements the “devil is in the details,” but the states cannot access the details.

There are countless issues involved in the review of state plans that turn on the conditions of the underlying FirstNet/AT&T contract. For example, how much of the statutory requirement for rural coverage can be satisfied through “deployables” as opposed to permanent hardened infrastructure under the terms of the contract? What is the specific long-term commitment to support discounted pricing for public safety use? Is there a mechanism in place to resolve any disputes that may arise between FirstNet and AT&T.

A fundamental question is whether there is an option for AT&T to “opt-out” of the contract with FirstNet if it fails to obtain a certain number of states “opting-in” or for any other reason. Another basic issue pertains to the penalties that AT&T may have to pay if it fails to meet certain levels of public safety use or “adoption” on the network. Without firsthand knowledge of the AT&T/FirstNet agreement, there is no way of knowing with certainty if there are caveats or conditions that could limit such a requirement?  What happens to the spectrum if there is zero public safety adoption in a given area or insufficient adoption on a nationwide basis? These are significant questions to which states are entitled to an answer.

For AT&T and FirstNet to simply address these and other critical questions an on ad hoc basis is not a prudent approach. The only way for a full evaluation of whether the needs and objectives of public safety are being met is for FirstNet and AT&T to disclose the underlying contract to the states so that they can examine the specific terms of the agreement.

As things now stand, a Governor is being asked to accept a vendor to build and operate the public safety network within his or her state – impacting the lives of First Responders and the public – without firsthand knowledge of the terms under which AT&T will provide the service. FirstNet and AT&T should disclose the terms of their contract pursuant to an appropriately drafted non-disclosure agreement so the Governors and their teams will have a complete picture in reviewing the FirstNet/AT&T coverage plans.

FirstNet was born more than five years ago with the passage of the Middle Class Tax Relief And Job Creation Act of 2012 (“Act”). As we wait for the conclusion of a court challenge by Rivada Mercury to the federal government’s procedures in selecting FirstNet’s partner to build, operate and maintain the nationwide public safety broadband network, one wonders if there is a better way forward. Does FirstNet really need the Federal Acquisition Regulation (“FAR”) procedures to select its partner?

FAR contains the uniform policies and procedures for acquisitions by agencies and departments of the federal government. For many, it is a lengthy, complex and bewildering maze of requirements. For a single-purpose, long-term service provider relationship, the question is whether FirstNet would be better off without the FAR? The FirstNet enabling legislation simply requires FirstNet to issue Request for Proposals (“RFP”) for selection of a vendor to construct and operate the network that are “open, transparent and competitive.” There is nothing in the legislation that requires FirstNet to use FAR procedures to select a vendor.

FirstNet is an “independent authority” within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (“NTIA”) with an urgent public safety and national security mission. Despite not being an “executive agency” explicitly subject to the FAR, FirstNet decided early on to subject itself to the rigorous hurdles required by FAR. FirstNet “assumed” application of the FAR because it  was “not expressly excluded from application of the Federal Acquisition Regulation.”

Under FAR, FirstNet had expected that a winning bidder for building out the network would be selected by November 1, 2016. However, as often happens in the FAR process, a court challenge was instituted by a disappointed bidder. The dispute could end soon and FirstNet will be able to go forward with its selected winner – AT&T by all public accounts. But what happens if the Court finds that FirstNet did not follow FAR requirements in the selection process? What happens if there are further court appeals leading to endless delay? Delay, delay and more delay is not in the best interest of the nation as FirstNet waits to fulfill its statutory mandate.

At what point should FirstNet even consider turning away from the FAR? FirstNet has gone so far down this road that it may be difficult at this time to forge a better path to a speedy and fruitful result. Nevertheless, FirstNet is not obligated to follow FAR procedures and it is free to craft its own guidelines for selection of a partner subject only to the “open, transparent and competitive” standard of the Act. There is nothing in the legislation that prevents FirstNet’s procedural guidelines from being simple, transparent and straightforward.

When it was first created, many had hoped FirstNet would act like a quasi-private entity with the ability to move swiftly, unburdened by bureaucratic quicksand. Unfortunately, as those who have followed FirstNet’s early history are well aware, that has not been the case. Perhaps out of necessity FirstNet will need to find a new way to “do business.” Just perhaps, the time is soon coming when FirstNet will find it best to sit at the negotiating table much like a private entity and negotiate a deal that is in the best interest of the country, without the weight of the FAR on its shoulders. While at the outset, FAR may have been considered a “safe” way forward, as demonstrated by the pending court challenge it is not necessarily the “best way” for FirstNet.

The State of New Hampshire has taken a bold step in its dealings with FirstNet that could serve as a model. Will other states (and territories) follow the Granite State’s lead?

In a few short months, FirstNet is expected to select a vendor to build, operate and maintain the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (“NPSBN”). After some consultation, FirstNet and its newly selected partner will present a plan to each state for construction of a radio access network (“RAN”) consisting of towers, backhaul and other infrastructure within that state. Each state has the option of accepting the FirstNet plan or developing its own RAN plan as an alternative.

For any state that may want to pursue an alternative plan, there are procedural hurdles and regulatory approvals that must be obtained, but the principal challenge may well be timing. From the date the FirstNet plan is presented to a state, the Governor will have 90 days to decide whether to accept this plan or opt-out and pursue an alternate plan that offers a better approach for meeting the state’s public safety coverage requirements.

If a state decides to opt-out, it must notify the FCC, NTIA and FirstNet within this 90 day window. States that fail to provide notice of an opt-out decision will lose that opportunity. Making an opt-out decision without any real alternative to the FirstNet plan in front of a state’s Governor would be difficult to say the least.

In the event a state files an opt-out notice, the state must develop and complete within 180 days requests for proposals (“RFP”) for the construction, maintenance and operation of the RAN for the State. Completing an RFP and developing an alternative plan within 270 days (starting from delivery of FirstNet’s plan) is a significant challenge.

However, the State of New Hampshire may have found a formula for addressing this timing challenge. Rather than trying to develop a plan under an almost impossible “shot clock,” New Hampshire took the pro-active approach, issuing an RFP in December 2015 and recently selecting a vendor –Rivada Networks–for the purpose of creating an alternative plan to be compared to the FirstNet plan.

New Hampshire has not decided to opt-out. However, with a vendor in place to evaluate the FirstNet plan and develop an alternative proposal before the Governor’s decision, New Hampshire has positioned itself to make a meaningful choice. The question now is how many other states (or territories) will follow this path?

The recent negative article on FirstNet that appeared in the Atlantic, “The $47 Billion Network That’s Already Obsolete” is an inaccurate critique of the First Responder Network Authority, otherwise known as FirstNet. To say the network is “obsolete” is so far off the mark that it is laughable.

There is little doubt that a nationwide public safety broadband network is needed to bring state-of-the-art technologies to first responders across the country. FirstNet is an outgrowth of the tragedy of 911 and the devastation of Hurricane Sandy which demonstrated the need for interoperable broadband communications among public safety agencies and personnel. Understandably, the Atlantic article was met by a unanimous backlash from public safety officials and associations supportive of FirstNet’s mission.

FirstNet was created by an Act of Congress in 2012 and contrary to the implications of the Atlantic article is led by some of the most dedicated public officials anyone could imagine. These individuals have worked tirelessly to bring the nation a public safety communications network that will serve our country for generations to come.

FirstNet is currently in the process of selecting a private sector partner to build, operate and maintain the network. After that selection, individual buildout plans for a Radio Access Network (“RAN”) will be presented to each state (and territory) for review. Together, these plans are the building blocks for a nationwide network, which under the law that created FirstNet must include substantial rural coverage.

Just how rural coverage is addressed remains a major issue for FirstNet. In order to reduce costs of the network, there has been much talk about FirstNet meeting its rural coverage requirements with deployables, such as drones, “cells on wheels” and balloons, rather than with permanent facilities spanning rural America. Some believe that such an approach, favoring urban areas at the expense of rural coverage, is simply not sufficient under the law. States will have the opportunity to develop their own RAN if they are not satisfied with the FirstNet approach. Time will tell whether the States and FirstNet can come together on the critical issue of rural coverage. So, while FirstNet certainly does not deserve any criticism for its efforts to date, let’s not start the victory parade just yet.

Another marker passed on the FirstNet roadmap last week as Capability Statements from bidders interested in building, operating and maintaining the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network were submitted March 31, 2016. Final bids are due in less than two months, on or before May 13, 2016.

FirstNet has clarified that submission of a Capability Statement is not a prerequisite to submission of a bid. However, it is unlikely that any serious bidder would choose not to take advantage of the Capability Statement process, which is designed to provide feedback from FirstNet prior to the submission of a nationwide bid.

The significant interest generated by its Request For Proposal (“RFP”) prompted FirstNet to extend the initial due dates for the Capability Statements and the bid submissions. FirstNet received over 400 questions seeking clarification of various parts of the RFP.  In record speed, FirstNet provided answers to questions on a variety of topics including vendor payments, financial sustainability of the network, rural coverage requirements, priority access and state plans.

Perhaps the best indication of the interest generated by the RFP is the number of companies requesting inclusion on a partner/teaming list. This list identifies interested entities looking to be part of a nationwide bid, as suppliers of products, services, and/or facilities. Over 600 entities are listed, including integrators, cable TV companies, rural telecommunications providers, electric utilities and numerous consultants. While there is no guarantee these entities will be included in any nationwide bid, the large number of companies looking to participate underscores the high interest in the FirstNet opportunity.

Of course, the key to success is for a prime bidder to come forward with both the ability and the resources to meet all of FirstNet’s objectives for the network. From recent trade press reports it appears that FirstNet will receive a number of meaningful competing bids. Stay tuned.

There could be two significant historical events this November. On November 8, 2016 the American people will elect the 45th President of the United States. One week earlier, on November 1st, the First Responder Network Authority, commonly referred to as FirstNet, hopes to select a winning bidder to construct, maintain and operate a nationwide public safety broadband network (“NPSBN”).

Purpose: The NPSBN is intended to bring our nation’s public safety personnel into the 21st century, giving them access to state-of-the-art broadband capabilities including high speed data and video on a hardened network designed to operate under emergency conditions. FirstNet is licensed for 20 MHz of 700 MHz “beachfront” spectrum. A successful launch of the network will enable a highly informed, coordinated response to public safety events including medical emergencies, natural disasters and acts of terrorism.

The FirstNet RFP. Almost four years after Congress established FirstNet through enactment  of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, FirstNet recently released its long-awaited Request for Proposal (RFP) looking for a commercial entity to build and run the network. Although only one nationwide bid will be selected, no one entity is capable of meeting all of FirstNet’s objectives.  To achieve a truly nationwide network, prime bidders will need to form partnerships, including those with rural telecommunications service providers and other rural America infrastructure owners, such as electric cooperatives and oil and gas companies.  The selection process will be conducted over four phases with only the most competitive bids surviving to the final phase.

Focus on Capability Statements. In the first phase, interested parties must demonstrate they are capable of performing necessary work by providing a Capability Statement. These statements are due by March 17, 2016.

Capability Statements will be evaluated based on five factors:

  1. the ability to obtain public safety use and adoption of the network;
  2. the ability to provide coverage and capacity nationwide using the NPSBN and other spectrum;
  3. partnerships with rural telecommunications providers;
  4. the ability to monetize the network, which may include a secondary user customer base in addition to primary public safety users; and
  5. the financial ability to develop and sustain the network.

Once this threshold level is met FirstNet’s review of the competitors will intensify.

Submission Date for Qualified Bidders.  Following FirstNet’s analysis of the Capability Statements, those deemed best qualified will then be invited to submit a proposal. Proposals in response to the RFP are due April 29, 2016. A proposal must address numerous objectives, including nationwide coverage, financial stability, competitive pricing, cybersecurity solutions and construction milestones for both urban and rural areas.  The winning bid will be based on the proposal delivering the “overall best value” to FirstNet based on these objectives and certain defined technical requirements.

If all goes according to plan, November 2016 could be a very historical month.