AT&T, Rivada face off over public safety and FirstNet at CCA show

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, center, and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, right, discuss public safety networks at the CCA show.

FORT WORTH, Texas—Rivada Networks made a stand against AT&T and FirstNet here at the CCA trade show, arguing that smaller carriers should push state officials to evaluate their options before signing on to the AT&T/FirstNet proposal.

Rivada’s efforts to position itself as a viable alternative to AT&T and FirstNet stretched across CCA’s show schedule, from afternoon information sessions to headliner keynotes. The company highlighted officials and executives from a wide range of entities, including wireless carriers, state representatives and even former presidential candidates.

During a “fireside chat” keynote this morning, Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida and a GOP presidential candidate last year, argued that there was “no sunshine, no transparency and no accountability” in the FirstNet/AT&T proposal for building a nationwide, interoperable wireless network for public safety users like police and firefighters.

During that same event, Martin O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland, went even further, calling the AT&T/FirstNet proposal a “pig in a poke,” “third world thuggery” and “outrageous.” (For those who might be wondering, “pig in a poke” means that something is sold or bought without the buyer knowing its true nature or value.)

In a response to those comments, a representative from FirstNet issued this statement: "It’s unfortunate that some feel the need to resort to name calling instead of having a substantive conversation on the communications needs of our nation's first responders."

Both Bush and O’Malley are on the board of directors for Rivada, and Rivada sponsored their keynote session.

Interestingly, AT&T had at least one executive on the ground in Fort Worth during the CCA show who was working to find smaller wireless carriers that would work with AT&T to build out coverage for its public safety service. That’s noteworthy because AT&T and Verizon are not members of the CCA; the trade association represents Sprint, T-Mobile and smaller U.S. wireless carriers on various policy issues.

An AT&T representative didn’t immediately respond to questions from FierceWireless about the operator’s efforts here at CCA.

Rivada’s work at CCA’s trade show doesn’t really come as a surprise. As a trade association, CCA works to create opportunities for smaller wireless operators like C Spire, U.S. Cellular and others. Thus, it would naturally work against the AT&T/FirstNet proposal because, if states opt in to that offering, it could drain public-safety customers away from smaller wireless carriers.

CCA’s Steve Berry noted that FirstNet officials attended the association’s trade show during the past two years, but that they were not in attendance at this year’s show.

And it appears that Rivada has made some progress in its efforts to get smaller wireless carriers behind its public safety proposal. Representatives from C Spire, Shentel and VTel Wireless yesterday appeared on a panel with Rivada’s Todd Rowley and generally voiced support for Rivada’s proposed alternative to AT&T/FirstNet.

“These states [that are opting in to the AT&T/FirstNet proposal] are opting into something that is ill-defined and not in their best interest,” argued William Pirtle, SVP of wireless for Shentel, one of the nation’s largest regional wireless operators.

Rivada is working to team with smaller wireless carriers to create public-safety proposals at the state level that will represent an alternative to the AT&T and FirstNet option. Already Rivada has announced it will partner with U.S. Cellular for such a proposal in New Hampshire. In those proposals, Rivada and its carrier partner would jointly build out coverage for public safety users with 700 MHz spectrum from FirstNet, with Rivada taking the responsibility for meeting a state’s possible coverage requirements.

Rivada’s efforts to generate momentum among smaller wireless operators also stretched directly to public safety officials from states including Massachusetts and California. As noted by Mobile World Live, Massachusetts’ FirstNet project director Michael Saltzman said here at a CCA panel discussion yesterday that Massachusetts state officials were unsatisfied with the level of detail provided by AT&T and FirstNet, noting FirstNet “doesn’t share a lot of information.” He said the state is unwilling to move forward with the FirstNet/AT&T proposal until its concerns are addressed.

In response to those comments, FirstNet said it has been working with states and territories to develop its plan and to develop its plan.

“We have been consulting with all of the states and territories for several years to get their feedback on and involve them in the design of the network, the procurement that led to the network contract selection, and the planning, including their state plans," FirstNet said in a statement today. "We are currently working with the states and territories to support their decision-making process, providing them with the information they need, as requested, to make the most informed decision for their public safety communities.”

FirstNet traces its origins back to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when public safety responders were not able to talk to each other due to the different communications systems they used. FirstNet has 20 MHz of nationwide 700 MHz spectrum that Congress authorized for public safety use; last year AT&T beat Rivada to win FirstNet’s RFP for a wireless buildout partner.

For its part, AT&T has argued that its FirstNet proposal offer the best option for public safety users, and that it expects most states to ultimately choose its service.

Article updated Oct. 26 to correct information on Rivada's board of directors, and to include commentary from FirstNet.