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In late September, MissionCritical Communications posted several online articles about network-based and wireless handset-based emergency location technologies that will provide local public-safety answering points (PSAPs) the physical location of wireless callers dialing 9-1-1. These articles coincided with the FCC’s implementation of Kari’s Law, which Congress enacted this year.

Kari’s Law was enacted in response to an unfortunate incident where a young girl in a hotel room repeatedly dialed 9-1-1 but failed to reach the PSAP because the hotel’s phone system required a “9” be dialed as a prefix to secure an outside line. The legislation targets wireline voice technology, which increasingly, is limited to relatively large commercial locations. Operators of small businesses and individuals, including persons who lease their residences in multifamily dwelling units, are abandoning use of landline service.

In early October, MissionCritical Communications highlighted the public-safety community’s concerns over wireless carriers promoting Z-axis location accuracy of 5 meters or more as the dispatchable location standard. It was noted that this tech­nology could report a caller’s location either one floor below or above the calling party’s actual location, across the street or in a different building. Also noted was that substantially more accurate standards of 3 to about 1.8 meters are achievable.

Unfortunately, even assuming network-based or handset-based technologies will perform flawlessly, wireless emergency calling from in-building locations remains problematic. The efficacy of in-building wireless communications requires that RF signals be transmitted from and received by wireless callers within the buildings. Energy-efficient building materials impede RF signals, and persons above the 20th floor often do not receive a reliable signal from wireless carriers’ networks, particularly in dense urban areas or other high-density cluster environments.

Distributed Antenna Systems

The principal solution is an in-building distributed antenna system (DAS) built using off-the-shelf technologies and leveraging proven RF engineering practices. DAS enables in-building connectivity for multiple wireless technologies — Wi-Fi, public safety and commercial mobile radio service (CMRS). Whether a home, hotel or venue, a property’s owner or operator largely determines Wi-Fi connectivity. A public-safety DAS is often required by statute.

With the rollout of the First Responder Network Authority (First-Net), AT&T’s participation in DAS arrangements should increase. Whether in-building voice and broadband CMRS is available requires a wireless carrier’s participation and financial commitments from building owners. DAS supporting CMRS may be carrier specific or capable of supporting multiple service providers, referred to as a neutral-host DAS.

In-building DAS configurations require wireless carriers to extend their networks to a venue or building, typically installing baseband and RF equipment in a basement vault or equipment room. The wireless carrier operates this equipment. The RF signal is transmitted via in-building wiring — increasingly, fiber-optic cable — to antennas on one or more locations on each floor or every other floor to maximize coverage through an in-building distribution network. In a neutral-host DAS, multiple wireless carriers’ terminal equipment first connects to the owner’s neutral-host equipment, which in turn connects to the in-building distribution network.

The ecosystem of consultants, equipment, technologies and firms providing turnkey in-building DAS solutions is reasonably mature. Fiber-optic cable is the preferred wiring because of its extended useful life and substantial capacity. Major tower management companies that operate outdoor DAS networks are among the leading DAS providers in major venues. These entities may lease access to their in-building networks to the wireless carriers.

Business Models

Whether a DAS is deployed in a given building or venue turns on a series of business decisions. For­most, a wireless carrier determines whether its network would benefit from an in-building DAS by offloading or minimizing traffic on a carrier’s macrocell/outdoor network or if competitive pressures dictate that its service be available within the venue or building. Whether to extend its network into a major sports and entertainment venue is an easy decision for a wireless carrier.

Beyond these venues, wireless carrier participation is inconsistent, at best. In countless wireless infrastructure forums and conferences, wireless carriers emphasize their resources are limited and acknowledge they cannot extend their networks into every building requiring in-building coverage. Because of wishful thinking or a lack of due diligence by a systems integrator or property developer or owner, more than a handful of well-designed, fully constructed in-building distribution networks are not active because wireless carriers did not commit to extend service to the buildings.

The decision to make the investment for an in-building distribution system belongs to a property developer or owner. Wireless carriers rarely provide financial support for in-building distribution systems. Even if a property owner is willing to make this investment, the question remains whether the wireless carriers will extend their networks into the building and install their equipment to provide service. Many buildings don’t make the cut.

A Combination Solution

A combination equipment and financing solution that may improve carrier engagement in supporting in-building wireless communications exists. Cheytec Telecommunications established a relationship with the principal wireless equipment vendors to acquire the same baseband and RF equipment deployed by the carriers in their networks. Cheytec “takes the investment” in, retains title to and assumes the maintenance for the in-building wireless network equipment, charging the property owner a monthly licensing fee. Further, wireless carriers are authorized to operate and control this installed equipment as part of their networks.

The solution lowers a wireless carrier’s cost of extending its network into a building but still obligates the owner to fund the in-building distribution system and pay the monthly equipment-licensing fee.

Whether an owner takes this step depends on the owner’s economic analysis of providing wireless connectivity for its tenants or residents. Some property owners now view indoor wireless as an essential utility for their tenants. These decisions are made on a case-by-case basis. Wireless carriers could better support property owners by entering into DAS agreements with terms beyond five years, allowing the property owner to recover the cost of the in-building distribution system over a longer period.

Conclusions

Without question, dispatchable location standards must fully support public-safety emergency response activities. Equally important, policy-makers and legislators must recognize that wireless carriers largely determine the underlying availability and reliability of their services within many high-rise residential and commercial properties.

There are no easy solutions because substantial financial commitments are involved, but the challenges associated with in-building wireless communications should be acknowledged by the wireless carriers and recognized by regulators. Without open dialogue, an underlying issue in emergency wireless communications will persist indefinitely.

For more information, please contact Doug Jarrett (jarrett@khlaw.com; 202.434.4180).

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2018 issue of Mission Critical Magazine, and is reproduced with their permission. Visit MissionCritical Communications here

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After an extended deliberative process and pursuant to issuance of a Request for Proposals (“RFP”), the First Responder Network Authority, commonly known as FirstNet, selected AT&T as its partner to build, operate and maintain the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (“NPSBN”). The actual terms of the agreement between FirstNet and AT&T remain unavailable to the public for “proprietary” reasons. However, what has been revealed in public statements and in trade press reports may raise questions about whether the AT&T proposal accepted by FirstNet tracks the vision Congress had when it created FirstNet.

Spectrum Licensed to FirstNet Apparently Being Held in Reserve

As mandated by Congress in the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, (“Act”) the FCC licensed the 758-769/788-799 MHz band to FirstNet on a nationwide basis. This legislation was the culmination of a persistent effort by the nation’s leading public safety organizations to secure a 20 MHz block of “beachfront” 700 MHz spectrum for broadband use by first responders in urban and rural areas across the country. As recognized by the FCC, the “Act charges FirstNet with responsibility for establishing and overseeing a ‘nationwide interoperable public safety broadband network’ operated in this spectrum.” Emphasis on this spectrum.

The AT&T proposal adopted by FirstNet appears to essentially make the AT&T network the heart of the NPSBN with the FirstNet 700 MHz spectrum playing, at best, a supporting role in parts of the country. FirstNet has widely promoted that the entire AT&T network will be available immediately to first responders, with priority and preemption available on the LTE portion of the network. FirstNet’s beachfront spectrum will be utilized as part of the NPSBN where deemed necessary by AT&T. In testimony before Congress on July 20, 2017 (‘Congressional Hearing”), AT&T acknowledged that it will use the 700 MHz FirstNet spectrum where added “capacity” is needed by the AT&T network.

Exactly how much of FirstNet’s licensed spectrum is intended to be incorporated into the NPSBN by AT&T under its contract with FirstNet is a carefully guarded secret. In its Congressional testimony, AT&T represented that it will be “significant.” However, when pressed for a percentage on how much of the geography of the United States will be covered by the build-out of licensed FirstNet spectrum, AT&T declined to provide a specific answer saying this information is “proprietary” and cannot be disclosed – even to Congress.

Rural America

The Act also speaks in terms of “buildout” and “construction” to meet rural milestones. However, parts of rural America will apparently not see NPSBN base stations deployed– on any spectrum. The AT&T plan adopted by FirstNet apparently will rely on deployables – such as cells-on-wheels or COWs – in those areas of rural America in which neither the AT&T network nor the networks of potential roaming partners extend. In some cases, these deployables may take many hours to reach the site of an incident. How this approach meets the intent of Congress in mandating rural milestones for build-out of the NPSBN is an open question.

“Public Safety Grade”

FirstNet and AT&T have not articulated the meaning of a “public safety grade” facility. At the Congressional Hearing, both AT&T and FirstNet struggled in articulating the meaning of this concept, essentially saying that there is no one definition. This lack of clarity is unfortunate since a fundamental purpose of the legislation creating FirstNet was to make sure that public safety would not have to rely on a commercial network that is not sufficiently hardened. Groups such as NPSTC have developed detailed descriptions of what the first responder community considers “public safety grade.”  One only need look at the devastating results of Hurricane Sandy, which knocked out service in 25 percent of the cell towers in its path, to understand the importance of this issue to public safety.

Priority and Preemption

The concepts of priority – first responders go to the head of the line – and preemption – first responders knock other users off the network – under FirstNet’s plan also raise concerns. Following acceptance of its proposal by FirstNet, AT&T raised the issue of whether the FCC’s “net neutrality” policy, which is aimed, in part, at minimizing prioritization of Internet-based traffic could complicate its ability to provide priority and preemption to public safety users on the AT&T network. Congress or the FCC may eventually change the 2015 Open Internet Order, consistent with the proposal recently released by the FCC. Nevertheless, it is striking that AT&T is concerned with the potential impact of net neutrality on first responder priorities under the plan adopted by FirstNet.

As originally intended under the Act, first responders on FirstNet’s 700 MHz spectrum would be entitled to preemption, with the potential that non-public safety or less essential users could lose access to the network during emergency situations. The statute is based on the premise that these “secondary” users would be well-aware of their lower status on the FirstNet spectrum and would be willing to accept this condition in exchange for the right to access the NPSBN.

The proposal to deploy on AT&T’s network flips this concept on its head.  Under the plan adopted by FirstNet, the users that are subject to preemption during an emergency could potentially be members of the public who are depending on AT&T’s network. It is not entirely clear from public statements if AT&T customers will lose access to the entire network and if so, under what circumstances. At a minimum, this is an issue that deserves further clarification.

The spectrum licensed to FirstNet is intended under the Act to be the centerpiece of a hardened NPSBN that serves public safety agencies throughout America. It can be argued that the plan adopted by FirstNet is, in effect, little more than a rebranding of the AT&T network as the NPSBN, which raises substantial legal and policy questions.

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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.

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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.

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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.