My Turn: New Hampshire first responders need a reliable communications network

For the Monitor
Published: 11/18/2017 12:05:13 AM

For 15 years, the nation’s first responders have stressed the need for a dedicated public safety communications network that is interoperable and reliable during emergencies.

In 2012, Congress took the first steps toward that goal through the creation of a public-private partnership called FirstNet. Now, after years of further testimony, debate, rulemaking, bidding and extensive input from state and local safety officials, New Hampshire – and every other state – has an opportunity to realize the benefits of a wireless broadband network built entirely for public safety.

Today, there are two proposed plans pending to deploy a public safety network in New Hampshire. Gov. Chris Sununu must decide between the two plans before Dec. 28.

Should the governor choose to “opt in,” the state would permit FirstNet to deploy a statewide network using AT&T as its partner. AT&T would be responsible to construct, maintain and upgrade a radio access network, or RAN, in New Hampshire over a 25-year period, deploying specially allocated spectrum intended for first responders’ use.

AT&T’s plan will offer priority and preemption on its network for public safety users to ensure effective, uninterrupted communications, even during emergencies when service to commercial and retail customers may be impacted. AT&T will also provide dedicated customer service to the state’s first responders, and technical support in times of emergency. AT&T has proposed a substantial build for New Hampshire, expanding on its extensive commercial network to ensure robust coverage throughout the state.

When completed, AT&T’s network will cover 99 percent of New Hampshire’s population and 98 percent of its geography, ensuring nearly ubiquitous coverage for public safety in both rural and urban areas. To date, 29 states and 2 territories have opted-in, choosing AT&T/FirstNet.

If the governor chooses to “opt out,” the state would undertake an alternative plan using a startup company called Rivada Networks to build a RAN of its own. Under this scenario, New Hampshire would take on all the financial, logistical and technical risk of building, maintaining and upgrading the network for 25 years. It’s a daunting task, because Rivada has never successfully built a radio access network, and state government does not possess such technical expertise.

Rivada claims it can sustain its plan by generating substantial profits from monetizing the public safety spectrum, called Band 14, and selling it to other commercial users. Rivada’s proposed arbitrage scheme is concerning, because it is theoretical and has never been done before, and economically might only be possible in very dense urban centers like New York City and Los Angeles.

What’s more, Rivada would be experimenting with spectrum intended for public safety and first responders’ use.

A decision to opt out contractually binds New Hampshire, and the state would assume all risks – risks that would otherwise be assumed by AT&T if the state opts-in.

If Rivada fails in its experimental business plan to finance, build, maintain and upgrade a working network at any point over the next 25 years, New Hampshire will be legally obligated to FirstNet to complete the system, and the state’s taxpayers would owe tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars in fees and spectrum lease payments to FirstNet.

Indeed, these risks and the mission critical nature of a dedicated communications system for first responders were the primary reasons Congress devised a process for FirstNet to requests bids from proven industry partners with extensive experience in building and operating sophisticated communications networks. When FirstNet chose its partner in March, it selected AT&T – a company with more than a hundred-year track record in telecommunications. Rivada, on the other hand, was disqualified early in the FirstNet process because it could not demonstrate its financial stability, a viable business model, or the technical ability to build and maintain a wireless network responsible for the communication and safety of first responders. Rivada subsequently sued FirstNet, only to have a federal court uphold the company’s disqualification.

Now, Rivada wants to use New Hampshire as its guinea pig.

On Oct. 16, Gov. Sununu issued an executive order to establish a 5-person committee of advisers to review the proposed plans, paying particular attention to the financial and logistical risks posed by opting-out and examining the questionable Rivada arbitrage scheme. The governor has asked for a report on the plans before Thanksgiving.

The governor should be commended for his decision to study this issue more closely. New Hampshire cannot afford to get this wrong. Too much is at stake. Far more important than the enormous financial risks to taxpayers is the risk that a public safety communications network in New Hampshire fails or is delayed, leaving our first responders exposed. It has taken 15 years to get to this point, and we have an obligation to first responders and the public. A mistake today could cost us for the next 25 years.

(Mark Ouellette is president emeritus of the Professional Fire Fighters of New Hampshire.)

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