Urgent Matters

What just happened? A review of key factors considered during the FirstNet ‘opt-in/opt-out’ decision period

by Donny Jackson
Jan 05, 2018

All states made their "opt-in" decisions for FirstNet by the Dec. 28 deadline given to governors. Although the final choices were all the same, states took many different paths and considered a wide variety of factors in making their FirstNet decisions.

Meanwhile, if there was a failure in an “opt-out” state, it was unclear how it would be unraveled—after all, FirstNet represents uncharted territory on many levels, so there was practical playbook, and certainly no firm legal precedent.

For instance, it was not clear exactly how or when an “opt-out” initiative would be determined to be a failure. Would an alternative RAN in an “opt-out” state be allowed to perform at a subpar level for days, weeks or months before someone determined that a change was necessary? If a change was made, how would it be implemented? Would the state even retain control of the network, or would the infrastructure be controlled by creditors/investors associated with the alternative-RAN vendor? Should the “opt-out” state have a chance to correct the perceived problems and/or rebid the initiative, or should FirstNet immediately begin providing service in the state?

These questions are just the tip of the iceberg of potentially difficult scenarios, especially if an “opt-out” state became entangled in a vendor bankruptcy or other litigation proceeding.

Verizon was not a viable option in an “opt-out” scenario. One of the biggest questions asked throughout the FirstNet procurement process and the “opt-in/opt-out” period was: Where was Verizon? After all, Verizon was the one entity that potentially could have offered a low-risk solution comparable to the one that AT&T put on the table, either on a nationwide basis or as the provider of an alternative RAN in an “opt-out” state.

Verizon officials have said the company did not bid on the nationwide FirstNet RFP, because Verizon viewed it as a spectrum deal, and Verizon did not need spectrum. Other industry sources have noted that Verizon already is the market leader in public-safety broadband, so there would not be much to be gained from bidding on the nationwide FirstNet contract.

But numerous sources indicate that Verizon did participate in some procurements in which states sought an alternative-RAN contractor—conditioned on the state’s governor deciding to pursue the “opt-out” alternative. Rhode Island was one—based on public statements from Rivada Networks Chairman and CEO Declan Ganley—but the others are not known, because Verizon declined to discuss its RFP responses.

Of course, the one exception was in California, where Verizon very publicly announced its intention to submit a bid but ultimately decided against doing so. Verizon indicated that it did not bid in California because of “onerous” mandates from FirstNet, claiming that FirstNet and AT&T were “rigging the game to stifle true competition.”

Verizon officials repeatedly expressed their vehement opposition to the FirstNet policy decision that all FirstNet public-safety traffic—from both the “primary” and “extended primary” groups—must be routed through the FirstNet core network run by AT&T.

AT&T and FirstNet officials have said this approach is necessary to ensure that security, prioritization and interoperability functions are executed properly, whether a subscriber was in an “opt-in” or “opt-out” state. In contrast, representatives of Verizon and other carriers contended that LTE services are enabled through the core network, so mandating that traffic be routed through the FirstNet core would mean that the “opt-out” state would lose control of the user experience. Some even argued that the arrangement would be tantamount to a provider giving its customers to AT&T.

Verizon officials stopped short of publicly declaring this “core problem” to be a non-starter for the company, but it effectively was, as resolving this issue was—directly or indirectly—a condition of its proposals to state RFPs, according to several sources. Once the FCC determined that the “core problem” was outside its jurisdiction and left the matter to NTIA and FirstNet, there was no clear path for states to meet this condition, particularly in the compressed timeframe associated with the “opt-in/opt-out” decision.

Furthermore, when Verizon announced in August that it would build its own public-safety LTE core to mirror the FirstNet/AT&T offering, some state officials argued that public safety would be better served by having both telecom giants vie for first-responder business with their own public-safety LTE core networks. Many in the first-responder community agreed, although the lack of clarity whether such systems would be reliably and securely interoperable was troubling.

So, while Verizon promised to be an option for public-safety agencies making subscription decisions, Verizon was not a viable alternative for governors making “opt-in/opt-out” decisions. Some other established wireless providers also expressed concern about the FirstNet core arrangement, while even more decided that the FirstNet model was not the best opportunity for them during the nationwide FirstNet procurement.

Rivada Networks was the top choice for potential “opt-out” states. Among the vendor candidates that did not have an established wireless, Rivada Networks emerged as the most enthusiastic and best-prepared choice for states contemplating the “opt-out” alternative.

Rivad Networks recognized the FirstNet opportunity and began explaining the potential value of Band 14 spectrum to public-safety representatives as early as 2013—in fact, even some of the company’s biggest detractors acknowledge that Rivada Networks played a big role raising public-safety awareness of FirstNet in its early days.

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