FirstNet's fight for customers will continue long past opt-in deadline

Indiana is the 25th state to opt in to FirstNet’s system.

FirstNet and AT&T continue to garner commitments from states and territories looking to use the nation’s first dedicated network for emergency workers.

Even if they get every region they’re targeting, though, they’ll have to continue to fight to win over local municipalities. And that won’t be an easy task.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Commerce granted AT&T the right to build the nation’s first network dedicated to first responders. States have a legal right to opt out of FirstNet’s service, but if they choose another service provider, the network must be interoperable with FirstNet’s offering.

Securing the contract was viewed as a major win for AT&T, which will get access to FirstNet’s 20 MHz of 700 MHz low-band spectrum and $6.5 billion for designing and operating the nationwide network for federal, state and local authorities, with the right to sell excess capacity on the system. AT&T will spend roughly $40 billion over the life of the 25-year contract to deploy and maintain the network, the Department of Commerce said, integrating its network assets with FirstNet.

Chalking up commitments ahead of a looming deadline

This week, Indiana became the 25th state to opt in to FirstNet’s system. Two territories have also opted in to using the network. FirstNet has secured agreements from 27 of the 56 SPOCs—state single points of contact—it is targeting.

Governors in 53 of those 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 roughly a dozen have issued requests for proposals from potential competitors such as Verizon, Rivada Networks and Southern Linc.

Industry insiders generally believe FirstNet will ink deals with the vast majority of states, but a handful of smaller states could sign on with a competing service provider, said Ken Rehbehn, a former firefighter and EMT who founded CritComm Insights, where he serves as principal analyst.

“I think that there’s actually an effort to look at an alternative rather than just accept what the offer is from FirstNet,” Rehbehn told FierceWireless. “My belief is that nearly all states will be opting in—the offer in terms of coverage is pretty strong from AT&T. … (But) you might see two states, three states (opting out). That’s not that big of a deal; the core network will still be FirstNet’s core” because of the rules regarding interoperability.

State wins don’t necessarily mean local wins

But winning a state doesn’t automatically mean cities and towns in that region must automatically fall in line. So while the deadline for most states to opt in is looming, FirstNet and AT&T will have to continue to fight to win over local agencies in the following months—and, probably, years.

“I understand that with any project, with any business, there’s risk,” said Ed Parkinson, FirstNet’s director of government affairs, during a U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security hearing Thursday. “There of course are challenges in terms of user adoption, but we have plans for that. We certainly are intending to hit the numbers, and AT&T is intending to hit the numbers that have been mandated to go out there and get.”

And just as Verizon is AT&T’s biggest competitor in the overall wireless market, the nation’s largest carrier appears to be its biggest threat in the race to serve first responders. In August, Verizon vowed to build and operate its own “private core network” to serve the needs of first responders, managing and directing all communications functions such as network access and call routing. The core will operate separately from Verizon’s commercial core but will enable emergency workers to access the company’s LTE network, which covers 2.4 million square miles.

And Verizon has been careful to position its offering as complementary to FirstNet, noting that its service won’t require states to opt out of FirstNet. Verizon has asked the FCC to clarify that states may deploy a network core other than FirstNet’s, and to confirm that an “interoperability review of any state alternative plan will not be limited to a state RAN (radio access network) that interconnects directly with the network core” developed by FirstNet. And Verizon is quick to tout the traction it has gained over the years in providing wireless services to first responders.

“I think it’s important to look at what happens after the new year begins. Even those states that opt in, it doesn’t mean the local municipalities need to use the service. This is really important,” Rehbehn said. “The towns and villages will still have to make a decision. … Verizon is in a very powerful position right now. They own the accounts” that AT&T will be fighting for at the local level.