FirstNet 'fails to be transparent,' New Hampshire official tells congressional subcommittee

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FirstNet and AT&T will build a nationwide wireless network dedicated for use by first responders.

Pennsylvania became the 27th state to commit to use FirstNet’s offering as the nation’s first dedicated wireless network for first responders continued to gain momentum.

But that doesn’t mean every state is falling in line with FirstNet, as a Congressional hearing earlier in the day illustrated.

The House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology held a hearing to discuss states’ views on FirstNet, which will be built under a public/private partnership with AT&T. And speakers offered extremely differing views on the project.

“It is again important to note that FirstNet has been open and transparent in every step, ensuring that everyone who is involved in this process has as much information as possible,” CEO Michael Poth told officials. “Ultimately, each state and governor have all the information possible to make an informed decision. The public and first responders need this to be successful. Lives will depend on this network. This is the standard upon which we will be measured.”

Indeed, almost no one disputes the need for a wireless network that enables police, firefighters and other first responders to communicate immediately and seamlessly during emergencies. But John Stevens, statewide interoperability coordinator for New Hampshire, took direct issue with Poth’s claims of transparency.

“FirstNet demands our transparency but fails to be transparent itself,” Stevens said. “What are we promoting here, public safety and the ability to provide better service to our citizens, or lining the pockets of corporate America?”

Governors in 53 U.S. states and territories received initial state plans in June and must make final—and legally binding—decisions whether to use FirstNet by Dec. 28. No state has yet opted out of FirstNet, although approximately 18 issued requests for proposals from potential competitors.

New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu earlier this month signed an executive order establishing an “opt-out review committee” that will examine the regulatory and financial risks to the state were it to decide not to go with FirstNet’s offering.

Among other things, states are questioning spectrum manager lease agreements—SMLAs—that include hefty payments for opting out or terminating its agreement if they aren’t able to meet FirstNet’s technical requirements. Pennsylvania, for instance, would reportedly pay nearly $1 billion over 25 years to lease spectrum from FirstNet if it opted out, according to a recent report from Urgent Communications, and billions more if it didn’t meet technical and operational obligations. Similarly, California officials said opting out would require “an unrealistic number of subscriptions/connections” as well as nearly $3 billion in spectrum lease payments and more than $15 billion in penalties.

Verizon and Rivada Networks, among others, are positioning themselves as alternatives to FirstNet, and Rivada took direct aim at AT&T and FirstNet last week at the CCA trade show outside Dallas, with one member of Rivada’s board of directors referring to FirstNet’s proposal as “third-world thuggery.”

FirstNet and AT&T last week responded to complaints about a lack of transparency by launching a webpage offering more detailed information about its plans.