The head of the FirstNet told a House panel on Wednesday that the network authority is “closer than ever before” to deploying a dedicated service for first responder communications despite numerous challenges in its initial years.
Other witnesses before the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, however, told lawmakers that they were troubled by the network, and its national contractor, AT&T, as the deadline for states to opt in or out of FirstNet approaches.
“FirstNet demands our transparency but fails to be transparent itself,” John Stevens, New Hampshire’s statewide interoperability coordinator, told the subcommittee.
States face a Dec. 28 deadline to notify federal officials whether they plan to participate in FirstNet. Twenty-five states and two territories, to date, opted into the network, but critics have urged states to opt out and issued requests for proposals from rival carriers to build an interoperable public safety network.
FirstNet CEO Michael Poth said that he is confident in the plans developed for each state and that the authority expects a “significant number of opt-in announcements” in coming weeks and months.
“The opt-in path is a low-risk option that will support faster delivery of services to the state’s public safety community,” Poth said in prepared remarks.
Christopher Sambar, who leads AT&T’s FirstNet operations, added during questioning by members that the vendor ultimately chosen by states would need to be large enough to respond to — and absorb financially — the effects of natural disasters or terrorist attacks during which FirstNet will be most needed.
Brian Moran, whose native Virginia was the first state to opt into FirstNet, said public safety agencies in the state are already utilizing the network and that opting out would have meant “accepting the unknown” in terms of both cost and risk.
“The cost of what it will take to construct, maintain, and operate a public safety dedicated broadband network in the commonwealth that is interoperable with the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network and matches the quality of service is still unknown,” said Moran, the state’s public safety and homeland security secretary.
New Hampshire, by contrast, was the first, and to date only, state to develop an alternative plan to FirstNet. Stevens told the panel that although the state’s proposal would provide coverage at no cost to subscribers, “states are now being threatened with outrageous and indefensible penalties that deter states from even considering an opt-out decision.”
New Hampshire’s estimated termination penalty alone, Stevens said, would range from $10 million to more than $600 million.
“What are we promoting here, public safety and the ability to provide better service to our citizens, or lining the pockets of corporate America?” he asked in prepared testimony.
Poth disputed that characterization and told lawmakers that FirstNet would be required to immediately step in if an alternative network fails at any point during the 25-year lifetime of the contract.
“This is a very complicated network with a lot of moving parts,” Poth said. “If a state that opts out … has those problems, we are going to have to figure out a way to recover those costs.”
Verizon, the top U.S. wireless carrier, submitted written testimony to the panel and later questioned references by FirstNet and AT&T to their use of proprietary devices and applications.
“Interoperability must occur at every level,” said Verizon’s VP of Public Safety Policy Don Brittingham in a statement.
Filed Under: Industry regulations