Watching the FirstNet decision making process by states has been a fascinating experience. As of this date, a number of states have opted-in, at least one state having “barely considered” opting-out. In contrast, other states have issued RFPs to determine whether in fact alternatives exist which are economically and technically feasible. The State of Michigan has even gone as far as to select Rivada Networks as a vendor if the state opts-out.
Having discussed opt-in and opt-out scenarios with a number of stakeholders, and sat in on some FirstNet meetings, there are some serious concerns that have been raised about the plans put forth by AT&T. In fact, one of the complaints was that there was a distinct lack of plans, even for those that had full access to the portal.
For example, from what has been presented, it does not appear that FirstNet has planned a complete eco-system for delivery of information enabled by broadband access. Instead of an end-to-end managed service, it appears to some attendees that what is intended is essentially the same basic voice/data service delivered by every commercial carrier, with the added feature of ruthless preemption. Perhaps this is a fallacy, but it’s not clear to many public safety folks.
One can assume that apps being developed for the network can be used for any carrier (the apps are clearly not band dependent, unless they’re made proprietary, and public safety has been down THAT road before). It would also seem that any radio units developed for FirstNet can be configured for any carrier. If true, it would seem that any carrier offering ruthless preemption can essentially replicate the AT&T offering.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it gives states and municipalities the ability to look at apples-to-apples comparisons between offering for the state, negotiate where needed, and make appropriate decisions. Even if a state opts-in, a municipality would still have the ability to review whether to take FirstNet/AT&T service, or use a competing carrier willing to offer ruthless preemption, just not on Band 14.
This last possibility is an interesting one. If a state opts-in, a municipality might not have the best AT&T coverage in their area at this time. If Verizon (for example) presently has better coverage in the area, and AT&T’s Band 14 build-out in that area isn’t being completed for another four years, it would seem that the municipality would consider remaining on Verizon, particularly if they can get identical services (ruthless preemption, apps, interoperability, etc.). AT&T would be incented to build-out “better” in that area, and all of the entities would then compete on price.
Given AT&T’s statement that it is only going to build-out Band 14 where AT&T does not already has adequate coverage and capacity, one might question if the cost of the multi-year fight to create FirstNet was worth it. If there isn’t anything special about Band 14, and we can do ruthless preemption, etc. on non-Band 14 spectrum, if Band 14 did not enable anything that couldn’t be done on the rest of a carrier’s network, was the cost of public safety’s T-Band spectrum worth it? It’s not abundantly clear at this time.
In the meanwhile, it’s important that we do a bit of myth busting about FirstNet. First(Net), please read some of the myth busting by UrgentComm’s Donny Jackson in this article. Donny has a great ability to put land mobile radio issues into understandable text.
At one of the FirstNet meetings that I attended, a long time public safety employee believed that if a state opted-in, local public safety was obligated to take service from FirstNet, and narrowband systems would go away. Not true. It is readily acknowledged that these systems will operate in parallel, at a minimum until mission critical public safety services (like peer-to-peer networking) become a reality. That won’t happen for quite a while, and even then there will be a lengthy transition period.
Once these services are available, individual municipalities will have multiple choices: (1) FirstNet and the existing narrowband system; (2) FirstNet alone; (3) An alternative broadband provider and the existing narrowband system; (4) An alternative broadband provider alone; or (5) retaining the existing narrowband system, and not obtaining broadband service at all.
With regard to this last option, it will be interesting to see what traditional land mobile radio manufacturers offer in terms of narrowband equipment in the coming years. Certainly, a few major manufacturers have agreements with broadband providers, and you’ll see multi-mode equipment. However, manufacturers without such alliances will hopefully be energized to come up with new and innovative equipment and services to somewhat compete with broadband services, or at least make such equipment so cost competitive as to give a municipality pause before signing up for broadband. Given the age of the P25 standard, such innovation would be welcome (and will make for exciting discussions at IWCE, which in 2018 will be in Orlando, Florida for the first time in many years. Of course, IWCE will be after states have made their opt-in or opt-out decisions, but certainly within the zone of municipalities deciding whether to take service. See you there!