Connecting state and local government leaders

Deadline Looms for Nation’s Broadband Network for First Responders

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Connecting state and local government leaders

Although each state has unique issues they wish to see addressed, there are some common challenges affecting all states that require clarification and should be resolved before the release of the final state plans.

By the end of this year, governors have a decision to make about how their states will participate in the rollout of the largest infrastructure project since the Interstate Highway System under President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Beginning next month, governors are expected to receive their final state plans from FirstNet and AT&T for accessing the National Public Safety Broadband Network.

Already 12 governors have said they will opt in to their FirstNet plan. The remaining 43 have submitted questions and comments with suggested revisions.

Though each state has unique issues they wish to see addressed, there are some common challenges affecting all states that require clarification and should be resolved before the release of the final state plans.

Specifically, governors’ offices need to know the process for transitioning onto the network if they opt in, more guidance on the communication channels between the state and FirstNet/AT&T and the accountability frameworks that apply to AT&T and FirstNet.      

Governors have been told once they opt in, they will receive immediate priority status on their current networks, with the ability to preempt other users in the event of an emergency by the end of the year. Several states have said their decision to opt in is at least partly based on this ability.

However, whether first responders will be able to access AT&T’s services may be more complicated, depending on the state or local jurisdiction’s procurement and contracting requirements. States should consider whether this warrants further review.

AT&T also needs to advise states, to whatever extent possible, of any other potential barriers, which includes realistic timelines for gaining access to the network and not just a best-case scenario.  

Communication between FirstNet, AT&T and states is supposed to operate through the state’s single point of contact. In reality, though, governors’ offices and FirstNet/AT&T representatives have, at times, gone around that point of contact, creating communication challenges in keeping all parties fully informed.

In my role with the National Governors Association, I have witnessed these communication challenges and recommend that states and FirstNet/AT&T detail and commit to the state point of contact’s future role, for both states that opt in and those that opt out.

In addition, FirstNet/AT&T and the states need to include state points of contact in all conversations related to the governors’ decisions. And perhaps most important, FirstNet/AT&T should always seek to engage states as partners, not prospective clients.

Ongoing accountability among all parties is critical for the successful deployment of the network. There is no current legal recourse for an opt-in state if AT&T does not, for example, meet the proposed rural coverage in the plan. This is where Congress can and should play an active oversight role with FirstNet to ensure states’ concerns are heard. FirstNet, too, should create a process whereby states that opt in can submit their formal grievances, if it has not done so already.

At the end of the day, governors, FirstNet and AT&T are on the same team. They all want the network to succeed. But success will be hampered if states are not given accurate information and tangible commitments.

Governors remain fully supportive of the legislation that created FirstNet, and the National Governors Association will continue to help ensure that governors are equipped with the most accurate and detailed information to make the best decision for their state.

Michael Garcia is a policy analyst with the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices Homeland Security and Public Safety Division.

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