Kevin O’Connor encourages departments to evaluate their communications options.

Communications—both mission-critical voice and data—are crucial components for fireground safety and efficient operations. For decades, we have lobbied, begged and cajoled to secure inter- and intra-operability. And now a moment of choice is upon us.

This summer, FirstNet selected AT&T as its partner to build out the nationwide interoperable data network with limited push-to-talk capabilities. It bears mentioning that FirstNet and its data product should never be construed as a replacement for existing legacy mission-critical voice communications. The data piece is a valuable, but subordinate, adjunct.

On Sept. 19, FirstNet/AT&T released their plans to the 50 states. States have until Dec. 28, 2017, to determine whether they wish to opt in to FirstNet/AT&T. My purpose here is not to encourage or discourage a state’s ultimate decision. Those decisions need to be made by the governor, other state officials, and leaders in the fire and emergency services.

The key is that state governments do have a choice, and they can evaluate their options for data networks. States can opt in to FirstNet or they can select another option. Of course, if you do choose to go with FirstNet/AT&T and their business partner Motorola, just like in any situation, they should earn your business. I started my career negotiating contracts. At the end of the day, I always fought to get the best deal. Never once did I look at an opening proposal and blindly trust the person on the other side of the table promising, “It’s a good deal, trust me.” I did my homework and due diligence.

In the case of choosing a data communications systems, there should be three major considerations: 1) service/coverage, 2) cost and 3) control.

At minimum, all states should issue a request for proposal (RFP), if for no other reason than to make FirstNet/AT&T sharpen their pencils and make the best deal. Would you buy a car after visiting a single dealership? No. You shop and compare. 

Currently, AT&T’s competitor Verizon already has the lion’s share of public safety data clients, with over a 70 percent market share. Like AT&T, they are pledging preemptive priority access for first responders. Verizon has made it clear that they intend to compete for the business. Doesn’t it make sense to create competition between the two telecom giants to garner your best deal?

Despite our best efforts, first responders will not have a dedicated network. It will be shared with commercial users. The First Net/AT&T plan envisions first responders being directed to multiple bandwidths, essentially melding D Block with other frequencies. Other vendors, such as Rivada Networks, suggest building out D Block on a state by state basis. Which is better? I don’t know, but doesn’t it warrant a deeper dive?

In terms of costs, FirstNet/AT&T states will charge first responders market rates for their services. With the ability to monetize the D Block spectrum, should we expect a price break? Or, at the very least, don’t we have a duty to compare prices with other providers? States that opt in forfeit any potential revenues for the duration of the contract between FirstNet and AT&T. States that opt out may be able to monetize excess spectrum capacity and share in the largess. The honest answer is we don’t know which choice is the preferable model. Each state has different needs and priorities. But without an RFP and a comprehensive review, we can never get the correct answer.

Finally, and most importantly, please evaluate the scope of coverage, especially in rural areas, and what services, education and guarantees any respective vendor will provide to first responders and local agencies. If you want control as a state, issue an RFP and evaluate. As a local jurisdiction, nothing mandates you to choose First Net/AT&T even if your state opts in. There are options. Kick the tires and negotiate your best deal. 

FirstNet/AT&T may be your best choice, but it should not be your default choice. Search out your best deal!