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FCC approves FirstNet opt-out procedures

States must abide by FCC’s FirstNet opt-out procedures if they don’t participate in AT&T’s FirstNet build

The Federal Communications Commission voted unanimously to approve the opt-out procedures by which states must abide if they decide that they don’t want to be part of the First Responders Network Authority national LTE network build-out by AT&T.

AT&T and FirstNet released state plans this week, triggering the start of a 90-day period in which FirstNet and the states will trade information and refine plans. Governors can either opt in as soon they’re satisfied with their plans, or the full 90 days could be spent finalizing the plan. States will have a final plan by the end of that first 90 days and then governors will have another 90-day period in which to make formal opt-in/opt-out decisions — so final decisions will come in about mid-December.

According to the FCC’s draft of the rules it approved today, once a state formally opts out, it will have 180 days to develop and complete requests for proposals for its own network, with another 60 days to submit plans to the FCC for approval — a total of 240 days from the date of FirstNet opt-out. Opt-out states must also follow a with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration subsequent to FCC approval of FirstNet opt-out plans.

“FirstNet’s success depends on there being [true] interoperability across this nation,” said Commissions Mignon Clyburn during the meeting. “The decision whether to opt in or not is a momentous one that no governor, or any of us, will take lightly.”

While the vote provides some clarity in terms of the timelines and procedures that states must follow if they want to develop their own Radio Access Network plans, it leaves open one very crucial question: can states build their own separate network cores, or must they use (and pay for access to) the FirstNet core?

The FCC concluded that it “[finds] this issue to be outside the scope of our statutory review responsibility and we decline to consider it further. … Although we will not reject an otherwise qualified alternative plan that includes a proposed state core, we will limit our review solely to the interoperability of the state RAN with the FirstNet network as directed by the Act and will not examine possible RAN interconnection with non-FirstNet networks or cores.”

Rivada Networks argued in its commentary on the FCC proposed rules that “nowhere does the [statute establishing FirstNet] specify that only FirstNet shall operate the one and only core network – or all core network elements – within the nationwide, interoperable public safety broadband network.” FirstNet has maintained that while states are authorized under the law to design and build their own RANs — which must interoperate with the rest of the national network — FirstNet traffic must use FirstNet’s core network.

SoutherLinc and the states of Alabama and Colorado asked the commission to affirm that a state plan can include a separate state network core from the national FirstNet network core — and the commission opted to confine the scope of its review solely to the Radio Access Network and backhaul. The FCC also will not require states to demonstrate interoperability in the field to FirstNet’s network, which it said would be “overly prescriptive and unachievable in the timeframes given.”

To keep plan review on track, the commission established a “90-day aspirational shot clock” for action on alternative plans, which it said will start when alternative plans are accepted for filing. The commission can suspend the shot clock — which it said it would only do under special circumstances such as a national emergency — and although some commentors wanted alternative plans to be automatically approved or disapproved if the FCC misses its self-imposed shot clock deadline, the commission rejected that option — so there won’t actually be any consequences if the FCC doesn’t take action on the plans within 90 days.

“I’m a little disappointed that the commission’s 90-day shot clock for the review of state alternative plans is just aspirational,” said Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, going on to add that he felt the commission has a history of starting and stopping shot clocks at will.

FirstNet CEO Mike Poth issued a statement commending the FCC for “taking this important next step in its rulemaking proceeding for alternative state plans. The public safety community advocated for a single, nationwide broadband network and they continue to underscore the need for this network today. The FCC has an important role to play in ensuring the interoperability of the network. FirstNet thanks the Commission for its continuous support and involvement with the success of the nationwide public safety broadband network and looks forward to working with the Commission to ensure that Congress’ interoperability objectives are met for the network.”

ABOUT AUTHOR

Kelly Hill
Kelly Hill
Kelly reports on network test and measurement, as well as the use of big data and analytics. She first covered the wireless industry for RCR Wireless News in 2005, focusing on carriers and mobile virtual network operators, then took a few years’ hiatus and returned to RCR Wireless News to write about heterogeneous networks and network infrastructure. Kelly is an Ohio native with a masters degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley, where she focused on science writing and multimedia. She has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, The Oregonian and The Canton Repository. Follow her on Twitter: @khillrcr

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