More on First Net………..

My December 2017 Fire House Column

Communications both mission critical voice and data are crucial components for fire ground safety and efficient operations.  For decades, we have lobbied, begged and cajoled to secure inter and intra operability.

The moment of choice has arrived for state governments to decide whether or not to evaluate all of their options for data networks or simply make a default choice and opt into First Net.  This summer First Net selected ATT as its partner to build out the nationwide interoperable data network with limited push-to-talk capabilities.   It bears mentioning that First Net 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 September 19th, First Net/ATT released their plans to the 50 states.  States have until December 28, 2017 to determine whether or not they wish to opt into First Net/ATT.  My purpose 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.

YOU HAVE A CHOICE!!  There is no obligation to reflexively opt into to First Net/ATT.   My advice is to make the troika of First Net/ATT and their business partner Motorola 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 listen to a carnival barker say: “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 RFP if for no other reason than to make First Net/ATT sharpen their pencils and make the best deal.  Would you buy a car after visiting a single dealership?  No.  You shop and compare.

Currently, ATT’s competitor Verizon already has the lion’s share of public safety data clients with over a 70% market share.  Like ATT, they are pledging pre-emptive priority access for first responders.  Unlike ATT, they are doing so without billions of federal grant dollars and a 20MHz of additional spectrum, which can be used for non-emergency purposes and monetized by the carrier.   That spectrum, incidentally, was lobbied for and won by fire fighters under the premise of having a dedicated network EXCLUSIVELY for first responders and not the hybrid developed by First Net.

The sad reality is that first responders will not have a dedicated network.  It will be shared with commercial users.  ATT was given a lease for a Band 14 spectrum which will be integrated into their existing spectrum.  Instead of building out a new, dedicated network for first responders, ATT plans to build out only where they NEED capacity.  First responder s may be on Band 14 or they may not.

To put this in perspective, here’s a real estate analogy.  Let’s assume a developer currently owns an apartment building that houses a variety of tenants.   Your community passes a referendum and offers a parcel of land to a developer to build a dedicated new, structure for senior housing.  The developer who owns the apartment building bids and wins the RFP.  He builds the new structure.  Then, he announces that the new structure will be for mixed use; retail, office, apartments and, yes, senior housing.  The explanation is that since the OLD APARTMENT building has vacant units that it has the CAPACITY to house seniors.  Does that sound like it meets the original intent?

What are the considerations?   First Net/ATT state will charge first responders market rates for their services.  With billions in grants and a 25 year lease of prime spectrum, perhaps, they could do better.  A RFP and comparison shopping may be in order.

States that opt–in forfeit any potential revenues for the duration of the contract between First Net and ATT.   States that opt out MAY be able to monetize excess spectrum capacity and share in the largess.

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.  Does your state want control or are you comfortable yielding the decisions to First Net??

First Net/ATT may be YOUR best choice and it may not.  It should not be your DEFAULT choice.  Search out your best deal!