3 States Weigh Opt-Out Plans for FirstNet

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Several states have started weighing alternative plans to the First Responder Network Authority’s initial outlines to create and operate a broadband network that supports first responder groups.

FirstNet, an independent authority within the Department of Commerce, and its partner AT&T released individual plans for every state and territory on June 19. States have to review the FirstNet plans and return feedback on them by Aug. 4. FirstNet will officially deliver the states’ plans to governors in late September; governors will then have the choice to opt in or out of the FirstNet network plan. As of July 14, four states—Arkansas, Kentucky, Virginia, and Wyoming—have opted in to the FirstNet plan.

Colorado is one of several states that have begun the process of exploring what an alternative plan would look like. Brian Shepherd, chief operating officer of Colorado’s Broadband Office within the Governor’s Office of Information Technology, said FirstNet’s plans for his state generally outline deployable assets, network architecture, and a coverage map.

However, he said the content, which includes coverage maps, does not provide the level of detail that he would like. For example, he said he would like to study coverage plans by specific counties.

“AT&T’s proposed coverage is a significant part, but they haven’t really told us how. The ultimate goal in either case is the same—to provide as much as coverage as possible. The ‘what’ doesn’t really change. What changes is the ‘how,’ ” Shepherd said. “They’ve kind of told us what they could do, not how they’re going to do it. Anyone can promise the moon. The question is how are you going to deliver. In general, it’s still a little light on details.”

Fellow states have echoed these qualms. Representatives from Colorado’s government have communicated with their counterparts in other states since the FirstNet plans came out. Shepherd said his team has collaborated with several working groups, including a Western states group and the National Governors Association.

“ ‘We want more details’ is probably a pretty common theme,” Shepherd said.

In Colorado, 140 stakeholders are reviewing the FirstNet plan. Over the next few weeks, Colorado’s IT Office will collect a “critical mass of comments,” Shepherd said. His team will analyze the comments and weigh their options with state stakeholders.

“We want to make a very thoughtful decision,” Shepherd said. “Exploring the opt-out is just that. It’s our duty to explore that option. If they address all the issues, that would be a positive thing.”

New Hampshire is the only state that already has an alternative plan drafted, according to John Stevens, New Hampshire’s single point of contact for FirstNet. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu will review both this alternative plan and the FirsNet plan when the window is up. According to Stevens, the alternative plan addresses statewide coverage, pricing, and broadband.

“The plan is in place, and it will continue to change,” Stevens said. “Our desire is to provide coverage to all first responders. We see the need for enhanced communication statewide.”

Like Shepherd, Denis Goulet, chief information officer of New Hampshire, has communicated with CIOs from other states across the country to discuss key concerns for FirstNet. He also meets regularly with Stevens, whose office confers with a data communication working group, FirstNet, and AT&T.

Yet another state gathering feedback and weighing alternate plans is Arizona. In late 2016, the state opened a Request for Proposals allowing any qualified entity to design a statewide broadband system for first responders. When the RFP closed in March 2017, the government had received three responses.

According to Tim Chung, assistant director of the Technical Services Division of Arizona’s Department of Public Safety, 30 evaluators are assessing not only the RFPs, but the FirstNet plan. These evaluators are studying a variety of factors, including operations, safety, infrastructure, and policy.

“As a state, we have to do our due diligence and give the governor options,” Chung said. “We have not made a decision. We will review the three RFPs and provide the governor with options.”

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