For years, a chronic complaint in the aftermath of natural or man-made disasters was that communications crashed. Time and again, fragile infrastructure simply couldn't deal with the sudden onslaught of traffic. This often kept first responders from using the network.
The September 11 attacks were the straw that broke the camel of inaction’s back. The government, in partnership with industry, stepped up. AT&T is launching the ambitious First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), which is defined as "an independent authority within the U.S. Department of Commerce," and will provide communications services to first responders. It is based on a 25-year contract under which AT&T will get use of 20 MHz of valuable spectrum (except when there is an emergency) in exchange for an investment of $40 million and payments of $6.5 billion over the next five years to help with development.
Forbes says that "over 35" states have opted into FirstNet. It is not completely smooth sailing for the initiative, however. RCRWireless reported that New Hampshire is the first state to officially opt out of the project. States have until December 28 to declare what they will do. It has a slightly lower estimate of how many have opted in (33, along with two territories). Eight of those states had explored other options.
The Granite State will build a network with Rivada Networks, which had sought the federal contract won by AT&T. The story describes disagreements within the state. A committee researched the project for two years and recommended opting out, while a business group wanted to go with FirstNet.
A lot of money is at stake and on the table. FirstNet is required to build a certain amount towers, according to MissionCritical Communications. The site quotes documents from Vermont that say the number of sites pledged to it by AT&T was 24. The carrier added six on the condition that the state opt in by the end of November, which it did.
However, those extra towers may come from other states. Chris Sambar, senior vice president for AT&T-FirstNet, is quoted as saying that the carrier's resources are not unlimited and that there is a "finite number of sites" he wants to build. That story, coupled with New Hampshire's opt out, suggests that a lot of wheeling and dealing is going on below the surface.
AT&T has also introduced "ruthless preemption," which is a way for first responders to take over LTE frequency across its commercial spectrum. This will enable the carrier to offer these services before construction even begins on the permanent FirstNet network.
The opt-in deadline is approaching for FirstNet. Expect a good deal of news between now and the end of the year concerning which states and territories are staking an emergency network future with AT&T and which are looking elsewhere.
Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.