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FirstNet Picks up Speed as Industry Ponders Impact

By J. Sharpe Smith

States opting in for the First Responders Broadband Network (FirstNet) surged past the halfway point earlier this month, with the addition of Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and Utah. Even with the momentum FirstNet is gaining, the tower industry is still uncertain of when or where the buildout will occur.

For now, 29 states and two territories have signed on. States that haven’t already opted in have until Dec. 28 to make their decisions.

With an opt-in decision, first responders can begin signing up for service, and thousands of connections on the network. First responder subscribers will have priority access to interoperable voice and data across the existing nationwide AT&T LTE network.

Both AT&T and FirstNet have committed resources to improve public safety communications. With each opt-in decision, FirstNet and AT&T bear the financial risk associated with the network build in that state or territory. FirstNet will also drive public-safety-focused infrastructure build out first on existing towers through modifications and then through collocations. And eventually through new builds.

“We expect to hit the ground running and issue work orders in January after the opt-in period closes. We’ve already committed more than $200 million in capital to the project in preparation for its start,” John J. Stephens, AT&T CFO.

“The needs of public safety demand more than what commercial offerings provide today. FirstNet will be a force for good, forever changing the way first responders think about and use communications,” said Chris Sambar, senior vice president, AT&T – FirstNet.

The 31 states and territories that have opted in, including Alabama, Montana, Alaska, Nebraska, Arizona, Nevada, Arkansas, New Jersey, Hawaii, New Mexico, Idaho, Oklahoma, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Puerto Rico, Kansas, South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Louisiana, Texas, Maine, U.S. Virgin Islands, Maryland, Virginia, Michigan, West Virginia, Minnesota, Utah and Wyoming.

“We’ve had a tremendous response [to the FirstNet opt-in process] so far. Already, 31 states and territories have opted in, and we are just a month into the 90-day opt-in window,” Stephens said.

AT&T must meet a timeline of 20 percent geographic coverage annually starting in April 2018, until it is finished.

“So we do think this is going to be constructive to the tower industry next year and for many years to come,” James Taiclet Jr., American Tower president, CEO and chairman, said in a Q3 2017 earnings call. Daniel Schlanger, American Tower CFO, also expressed his optimism about the potential for growth associated with FirstNet.

Smaller Tower Companies Less Optimistic

During the AGL Local Summit in Fort Worth last month, Ron Bizick, CEO of Tarpon Towers, said that FirstNet is currently the biggest catalyst for growth on the horizon for towers but the speed of the process has not been without some frustration. The large public tower companies stand to benefit the most, he added.

“It is slow coming. We all expected more activity sooner, but it is coming,” Bizick said. “From a revenue standpoint, Crown Castle International will benefit the most, because they have the AT&T portfolio, followed by the rest of the public tower companies. You can kill the most birds with one stone by going to the [bigger tower companies], if you can get a good deal done.”

Bizick has seen applications for tri-band antennas that would utilize the AWS, WCS as well as FirstNet frequencies. “What that suggests is that AT&T, true to its mission, is going to deploy one time, one truck roll,” he said. “It looks like they will have equipment deployed in the field ready to be turned on when a state opts in.”

AT&T plans to roll out FirstNet service to around a total of 45,000 towers, with 15,000 seeing new equipment in the first five year. There will be plenty of room for negotiation between AT&T and the public safety agencies concerning where that buildout occurs, according to Bizick.

“The public safety agencies will want coverage where they current don’t have it, and AT&T wants to deploy coverage where they don’t have to build towers,” he said. “I think the mixture should include coverage where there it currently is not available to public safety.”

Bernard Borghei, co-founder of Vertical Bridge, sees FirstNet as the last, best hope of getting broadband wireless deployed in rural areas. Collocating on existing towers will be essential for AT&T to achieve a return on its invest on its investment.

“A lot of us have rural towers and there is the possibility for a partnership there. We have a healthy relationship with AT&T. It is a timing issue. How aggressive they will be; how fast they will deploy; I don’t know,” Borghei said.

Collocating FirstNet Antennas May Not be That Simple

Not surprisingly, the FirstNet antennas covering multiple spectrum bands are bigger than the LTE ones.

“They are trying to go with one antenna per sector. Under Rev. H [of ANSI/TIA 222), the new tower engineering standard, a lot of the mounts are going to be stressed with the FirstNet antennas,” Borghei said.

Tony Peduto, CTI Towers CEO, said AT&T is looking for additional height beyond the standard 10 feet in the FirstNet rad centers, which may lead to reconfiguring the tower. He was not confident, however, that the Dec. 28 deadline for states to opt-in would hold.

“You have Oregon and Washington with a joint RFP out there which is due in mid-November. With the holidays, I think you are going to see an extension of time granted for states to opt-in as they try to figure it out,” he said. “It’s a tailwind. Just a matter of when.”

States opting out could lead to a FirstNet network with multiple providers, Peduto said

“A network will be built, but it may mean multiple players. Verizon has gone to states and lobbied them to build their network. Ultimately you are still going to need interoperability across the country, even if has Verizon in Washington state and AT&T in Oregon. I am not sure what it will look like in the end.”

States Should Issue Public Safety Network RFPs

By Berge Ayvazian

In negotiation theory, the best alternative to a negotiated agreement (BATNA) is the most advantageous course of action a party can take if negotiations fail and a favorable agreement cannot be reached. The BATNA is often seen by negotiators not as a safety net, but rather as the driving force behind a successful negotiation and a key point of leverage in negotiations. When applying this theory to practice, states that opt-in to FirstNet without investing the time to issue an RFP and understand their alternatives inevitably fail to serve their interests and the interests of their constituents.

As of Nov. 2, 2017, 30 states and territories have issued a Letter of Intent (LOI) to Opt-in to FirstNet plans, however, these LOIs are not binding. Major questions remain for the 26+ still mulling the decision, particularly regarding coverage and pricing. States should not and cannot make final opt-in decisions until the final state plans are made available on state portals and the critical information is provided on the grants and payments for the use of Band 14 spectrum and the FirstNet core.

By issuing an RFP, states are able to define their needs, make their demands known and review competitive bids. Any state that does not explore its options regarding FirstNet is doing a great disservice to its constituents and first responders. Only by issuing an RFP, can states ‘take control of their own destiny’ in getting the coverage, capacity, service quality, low cost and revenue sharing potential made possible by FirstNet. States should not be rushed to accept the initial proposals made by FirstNet to serve their public safety needs for the next 25 years.

After the award of the $6.5 billion federal contract for the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN), the launch of a public FirstNet portal in June provided the first wave of information on the status and features of the new first responder network to the general public. This public portal includes a service coverage map, a list of supported devices, potential software solutions, and further details on the network’s app store and developer program. The public FirstNet portal was targeted to FirstNet subscribers, including primary and extended primary users. However, this information is incomplete and insufficient for states to make decisions.

The first concrete details on FirstNet’s pricing, network design and geographic coverage were released by FirstNet and AT&T in draft state plans available only to state officials via a secure portal. The detailed information on network design, technology and pricing is considered confidential and only accessible to state single points of contact (SPOC) and their designees. This information is designed to allow governors to review and make ‘opt-in/opt-out’ decisions by mid-December 2017.

Since June, several states have complained that the AT&T draft plans do not provide:

  • complete state-wide public safety network coverage in both urban and rural areas
  • dedicated purpose-built “public safety-grade” network using Band 14 spectrum
  • local control by the states and their designated public safety officials
  • any specific pricing for public safety users reflecting their unique requirements
  • any payment or revenue share back to the states

There is still an active debate as to whether ‘opt-in’ decisions by governors are binding until after final state plans are issued. States and territories have been given a statutorily mandated 90-day window after they receive the final state plans and other required information from NTIA and FirstNet to decide whether to opt-in or opt-out of having AT&T build radio access networks (RANs) in their states. States were given an additional 180 days following this 90-day window to select a vendor for their state alternative plan, and retain the option to “opt-in” to the final state if they are not satisfied with the outcome of their RFP process. Wireless 20/20 believes that more states will be issuing RFPs, and opt-in decisions will be disputed until the nal state plans are revealed.

Berge Ayvazian, a principal consultant, joined Wireless 20/20 as a Senior Analyst in 2009, following more than 20 years as a senior telecom industry analyst and strategy consultant with Yankee Group, where he served as CEO and co-chairman of the 4G World and Mobile Internet World conference programs.

Ayvazian is now conducting 4G Network and Mobile Internet research on the convergence of broadband and mobility and the evolving business strategies of mobile service providers and their technology vendors. He leads an integrated 4G/LTE practice to help operators and their vendors to develop their 4G technology roadmaps and build a complete mobile Internet business case leveraging the Wireless 20/20 WiROI™ 4G Business Case Analysis Tools. He has used these tools to develop operator 4G network business cases, and address the most challenging modeling problems associated with Wi-Fi Offload, Small Cell deployments and 4G networks to serve venues such as stadiums, airports and train stations.

Ayvazian is also the Program Director and Conference Chair of UBM Tech’s Tower & Small Cell Summit and 4G World conferences in the US and India. He also serves a frequent speaker at other telecom industry events worldwide. He has been a regular contributor of analyst notes, white papers and webcasts for Light Reading, Light Reading India, Wireless 20/20 and 4G Trends media and community portals.

Verizon to Compete with AT&T for Public Safety Market

By J. Sharpe Smith

Move over AT&T. Verizon plans to make “substantial investments” in network capabilities, products and services aimed at providing 4G LTE to public safety agencies. The carrier plans to build and operate a private network core dedicated to public safety communications, providing network access and call routing.

The dedicated public safety core will operate separately from the commercial core and provide first responders with access to the whole coverage area of company’s 4G LTE network.

“Verizon’s public safety network solution does not require that states opt-out of FirstNet, does not require access to any federal funding provided to FirstNet, and does not require any financial commitment from states to support network deployment,” said John Stratton, Verizon executive vice president and president of global operations. The creation of this dedicated public safety network core will be fully funded by Verizon.

Verizon will make priority access and preemption services available to public safety when necessary and at no charge. The carrier will also invest in new mission-critical 4G LTE voice communications to complement existing services such as Push-to-Talk Plus. PTT Plus already includes interoperability with existing Land Mobile Radio networks.

“We’re making the investments necessary to give public safety access to the best possible network coverage, reliability and capability, when and where they need it,” said Michael Maiorana, senior vice president, Public Sector for Verizon. “Our public safety network will provide a comprehensive and cost-effective solution for public safety, and we’ll continue working to offer first responders the network reliability and access to innovative services they need to keep our communities safe.”

Verizon will market multi-band devices that provide access to Band 14 spectrum and enable full interoperability with any Band 14 radio access networks (RANs) deployed by FirstNet.

Thee FirstNet response to Verizon’s announcement noted that it has added Arizona, Kansas and Nevada to make 15 states that have opted in for its nationwide broadband public safety network.

“With Nevada’s opt-in decision today, we are up to 15 states/territories. Two of those states explored alternative options through an RFP/RFI process in their state before deciding to join FirstNet,” according to a FirstNet spokesperson.

The organization seems confident that it has done the groundwork that will allow it to be a success.

“FirstNet has consulted closely with public safety as a partner to develop this network,” the FirstNet spokesperson added. “Thanks to their input, we are now delivering first responders a compelling network solution they’ve never had before – which includes true priority today – and we will deliver them ruthless preemption, a dedicated and encrypted public safety core network with local control capabilities, a dedicated FirstNet Public Safety Security Operations Center and public safety grade customer care.”

J. Sharpe Smith is senior editor of the AGL eDigest. He joined AGL in 2007 as contributing editor to the magazine and as editor of eDigest email newsletter. He has 27 years of experience writing about industrial communications, paging, cellular, small cells, DAS and towers. Previously, he worked for the Enterprise Wireless Alliance as editor of the Enterprise Wireless Magazine. Before that, he edited the Wireless Journal for CTIA and he began his wireless journalism career with Phillips Publishing, now Access Intelligence. 

Arizona Says ‘Yes’ to FirstNet

By the Editors of AGL

The State of Arizona became the 13th state or territory to opt in into FirstNet. Arizona led a comprehensive solicitation of potential vendors to build and maintain its FirstNet network. Ultimately, Arizona selected the FirstNet and AT&T public-private partnership.

“The State of Arizona is ready to work shoulder-to-shoulder with AT&T and FirstNet to finally deploy a true interoperable nationwide communications system for public safety. We have much work ahead of us, but with AT&T’s open communication and commitment to excellence, the future for all first responders will be safer as will the lives of our citizens,” said Col. Frank Milstead, Director of the Arizona Department of Public Safety.

The FirstNet solution that will be built in Arizona was designed with direct input from the state’s public safety community. FirstNet has been meeting with Arizona’s elected officials and public safety community for several years to address their unique communications needs.

“This decision comes after the state considered several options to get the best solution for its public safety community,” says FirstNet CEO Mike Poth, who began his law enforcement career with the Tempe Police Department. “FirstNet and AT&T are pleased to have been selected for having the best network solution for the state, and we are honored to serve Arizona’s first responders.”

Preemption for primary users over the AT&T LTE network is expected by year-end. This means fire, police, EMS and other public safety workers will have dedicated access to the network whenever where they need it.

“After thoughtful analysis that included issuing an RFP, Arizona concluded that opting in provided the best solution for their first responders. We couldn’t be more pleased about that,” said Chris Sambar, senior vice president, AT&T – FirstNet. “We take our public safety mission very seriously, and we’re honored to deliver first responders access to the cutting-edge tools and technologies that will help them better serve the people of Arizona.”

U.S. Virgin Islands Becomes First Territory to Join FirstNet

By The Editors of AGL

The U.S. Virgin Islands Governor Kenneth Mapp has announced his decision to accept the FirstNet and AT&T plan to deliver a wireless broadband network to the territory’s public safety community, helping first responders save lives and protect communities. This makes the U.S. Virgin Islands the first U.S. territory to “opt-in” to the FirstNet network.

AT&T, in a public-private partnership with FirstNet, will build, operate and maintain a highly secure wireless broadband communications network for the Virgin Islands’ public safety community for the next 25 years.

The decision enables FirstNet and AT&T to begin creating an entirely new wireless ecosystem for public safety communications, connecting first responder subscribers responding to emergencies and supporting large events, like the Annual Carnival Festivals on St. Croix, St. John and St. Thomas.

Virgin Islands’ first responder subscribers will have immediate access to quality of service and priority to voice and data across the existing nationwide AT&T LTE network.

Preemption for primary users over the AT&T LTE network is expected by year-end. This means fire, police, EMS and other public safety workers will have dedicated access to the network.