NTIA Officials Outline Expected Process Associated with Reviews of States Seeking FirstNet ‘Opt-out’

By Stephanie Waye FirstNet, NPSBN, NTIA With 0 Comments

August 25, 2017

via Donny Jackson | Urgent Communications

Governors will have the most crucial financial information when they receive final state plans from FirstNet next month, but the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) review process may not be finalized until later, NTIA officials said last week during an APCO 2017 session.

FirstNet and its contractor—AT&T—released initial state plans on June 19, but those plans did not include some key data points, such as how much NTIA construction-grant money a state could receive, as well as how much each state or territory would pay to access FirstNet’s LTE core and the 20 MHz of 700 MHz Band 14 spectrum that is licensed to FirstNet.

These pieces of information are expected to be available to governors when the final state plans are delivered in mid-September. At that point, governors will have 90 days to decide to accept the deployment plan proposed by FirstNet and AT&T—known as an “opt-in” decision—or to pursue the “opt-out” alternative, which calls for the state to build and maintain the radio access network (RAN).

However, it is likely that an explanation of NTIA’s detailed review process will not be released with the final state plans, in part because the nomination of David Redl to serve as NTIA’s assistant secretary has not yet been approved, according to Marsha MacBride, NTIA’s associate administrator for NTIA’s Office of Public Safety Communications,

“The goal was always to have the final document out with the delivery of the state plans; unfortunately, given our change in administration, that timeline has slipped a little bit,” MacBride said during an APCO 2017 session entitled “FirstNet State Plans and the Governor’s Decision.” “We have a document ready. It’s under review, and it’s going to have undergo a process, but we are push, push, push, push, pushing to get it out as soon as we possibly can.

“I hope it’s not too long after the state plans are released but certainly before an opt-in or opt-out decision has to be made under the statute. We’re also willing to talk to any states one-on-one about what issues they may have, what our current thinking is, and what might change.”

States with a governor that chooses to pursue the “opt-out” alternative are required to complete procurement of an alternative RAN plan and secure FCC approval for demonstrating interoperability. At that point, the state would need to pass an NTIA review process—as well as sign a spectrum-lease agreement with FirstNet—before being allowed to fulfill its “opt-out” RAN plans.

Governors and their advisors should be aware that the “opt-out” alternative requires the state to assume significant responsibilities, according to Carolyn Dunn, direct of NTIA’s State Alternative Plan Program (SAPP).

“You are building, you are operating, you are maintaining, and you are improving the radio access network over that 25-year period, or that same period that exists with the FirstNet [nationwide] contract—and it’s got to operate seamlessly with the NPSBN,” Dunn said during a APCO 2017 session entitled “FirstNet State Plans and the Governor’s Decision.”

With this in mind, Dunn said that NTIA’s review process will evaluate whether a potential “opt-out” state can demonstrate the ability to meet legal thresholds in the following five areas:

  • Technical capabilities and funding to support the state’s alternative RAN;
  • Ability to maintain ongoing interoperability with the nationwide FirstNet system;
  • Ability to complete the project within specified comparable timelines to the state;
  • Cost-effectiveness of the alternative state plan; and
  • Comparable security, coverage and quality of service to the nationwide FirstNet system.

“We see these as Congress saying, ‘Yes, states have the option of moving in their own direction or making sure that the system works for them, but we want to make sure that the underlying requirements of the bill—to have a nationwide public-safety broadband [network]—will be achieved, even if a state is operating its own state RAN,” Dunn said.

“We’re not trying to do ‘gotchas’ here. If I can say anything, it’s that, if you know how to run an LTE and you can effectively demonstrate it through this process, you will pass [this technical-capabilities portion of the review process].”

Potential “opt-out” states will not be required to submit a flawless initial application to NTIA to get approval, but all review categories must be passed to get NTIA approval, Dunn said.

“You will get opportunities to remedy deficiencies,” Dunn said. “You must pass every demonstration—60% doesn’t get you there; you either pass it, or you don’t pass it.

“If you don’t pass it, you will get an opportunity to remedy the things that we noted or that the SMEs noted, and you’ll get a chance to review. We will then send it back to the reviewers, and they will review again. If you did not pass a second time, you will get another bite at the apple. We are trying to make this a very fair process, but you’ve got to get to a point where people can look at your plan is and say, ‘Yes, that’s possible, and that’s achievable.’”

States pursuing the “opt-out” alternative will need to show their financial plans to make the necessary payments to FirstNet and fund the deployment and maintenance of the RAN.

“FirstNet has figured a value on every state, based on the size of the state, the population of public safety, and other factors,” Dunn said. “You will have to be able to show that you can make those payments. If you can make those payments, we will say that you are cost-effective.”

These financial plans also should include methods to pay for the “opt-out” state to fund ongoing compatibility and interoperability testing to ensure that the alternative RAN works seamlessly with the nationwide FirstNet system, Dunn said.

“A lot of states think that FirstNet is going to do the testing for you, if you’re an opt-out state. We’ve been told that probably is not true,” Dunn said. “You’re going to have to run you own testing program. You’re going to have to have your own way of certifying that you’re in compliance with all of the network policies.

“That’s a big deal. You need to be able to account for that and be prepared to do that.”

NTIA will establish construction-grant funding levels for each state and territory, but Dunn and MacBride reiterated that these grants likely will not be great enough to pay for buildout of the RAN in a given state. The available $5.5 billion will be allocated among the 56 states and territories, with each receiving a portion of the funding, based on the cost to construct, operate, maintain and improve the FirstNet system. However, the NTIA funding will reflect only the construction portion of the equation, Dunn said.

“The grant can only cover construction, so they need to be able to generate sufficient revenues to cover their operations, maintenance and improvements over the project period,” Dunn said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications after the session. “But the grant will only be for construction, and they must show us what they are constructing.”

MacBride noted that construction-grant guidance that would be provided with the state plans could be reduced upon further review.

“We may decide that you have so much money coming in that you don’t need [as much money as proposed],” MacBride said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications after the session. “That should be picked up by your [contractor] partner, and therefore, your grant amount is zero. We can do that, and that is an option.

“There may be multiple reasons why we would bring a grant down from the amount that comes out in the [final state plan]. We don’t know until we see their budgets and their requests, just like in any kind of a grant program.”

MacBride said NTIA officials are fairly confident that the information provided at APCO2017 will prove to be accurate, but she added that the guidance reflects “our current world view … Things could change.”