Public Safety Advocate: The Politics of Opting In (or Out)

Thu May 4 12:12:02 2017

As my readers know by now, I am pro-opt-in for the FirstNet/AT&T network. I believe it makes the most sense and if the opt-in decision is augmented by other means of enhancing the network within a state then it is truly a win for Public Safety and the state.

The timing for the opt-in decision is not ideal. AT&T says it will deliver draft state plans in June with final plans being delivered in October. When the finals are delivered, the 90-day opt-in or opt-out clock starts to run. In essence, the governor of each state and territory has three options, not two. The first is to opt in by saying the state is opting in. The next of course is the governor saying the state will opt out. The third is for the governor to not say anything for 90 days, in which case a default decision will be made by law to automatically opt in. A governor may base the state’s opt-in, opt-out decision on potential political implications for him or her and make the most convenient decision.

Because of the court case and the delay it caused, the delivery of the state plans is in October, which is not an ideal time for a number of reasons political and otherwise. If the plans are delivered in early October and the state folks who have been working with AT&T and FirstNet since the draft plan was presented in June can make a quick decision and inform the governor of what they believe is the right choice, then the opt-in could happen quickly. As a result, the AT&T broadband network in that state would become available to all first responders in that state almost immediately. However, if the governor is not clear about his or her choice and waits for almost the entire 90 days to pass, that could also have implications in a few of the states and territories.

During this timeframe both New Jersey and Virginia will be in the process of electing a new governor since in both states the governor is facing term limits at the end of the year. So the election in these states will be held on November 7, 2017. That brings up the issue of politics. Will the FirstNet opt-in or opt-out decision become an issue in the election? Will existing governors opt in or opt out before their terms expires perhaps to help their legacy? Will nothing happen during this time so the 90-day opt-in, opt-out window will expire and the opt-in decision will become the state’s default choice?

This brings up the next point. In 2018, 36 states and 3 territories will be electing their governor. Some will probably be incumbents but some may be new. Will the opt-in, opt-out process become a political talking point in the 2018 election? Will it impact the decision of the current governor who may be running for re-election in 2018? Is FirstNet important enough to become a political issue? It was with the U.S. Congress for a number of years before the law was passed.

In the days before FirstNet, the Public Safety community was repeatedly told it had no clout with Congress because it did not contribute to campaign funds and it did not have lobbyists working the Hill (which was not completely true even back then). The Public Safety community came together, partly I believe, because it was told it did not stand a chance of acquiring the additional spectrum and for months and months police, sheriffs, fire, and EMS leaders in full dress uniforms walked the halls Congress and talked to everyone they could.

All of this effort paid off but perhaps the most influence within the Public Safety community came from the Sheriffs because they are elected in each county and, in most counties, they garner more votes than the Congressional Representatives and have a lot of clout within their own county. This clout helped sway several Congressional Representatives. The Public Safety Alliance (PSA) and the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) learned over the course of a few years that Public Safety did, in fact, have clout not only with those in Congress but in the Executive Branch as well. The result was that the legislation was passed and FirstNet came to be.

Ideally, the decision to opt in or opt out should be made purely on the basis that it will provide all of the first responders in a state access to a common broadband network that is the same as the network in every other state. However, we do not live in an ideal world and politics may either help or hinder a governor’s decision to opt in or opt out. In the case of the U.S. Congress it turned out that those casting their ballots for the law that created FirstNet listened to their telecommunications staffers and thought about the implications to themselves if they did not side with the Public Safety community. Hopefully, the same process will prevail at the state level.

Some governors may not want to directly opt in but do not want to opt out either. The good news for them is that there is the third choice of not doing anything and then after 90 days the default is an automatic opt in. This might appeal to some governors who have been told by those wishing to convince them to opt out that it would be the best political option for them, while the State (single) Point of Contact (or SPOC) and their staffs are telling them to opt in. If the governor is convinced that there are political ramifications either way that could haunt them in the future, the best option might be to sit tight for the 90 days and have the decision made for them. Not ideal from a FirstNet/AT&T point of view since I am sure they want as many early opt-ins as possible, but at the end of the day, or at the end of the 90-day decision period, the right decision (in my opinion) will be made automatically.

The first indication we on the outside will probably have is when we start hearing the reaction from the states in June once the draft plans are presented to them. There will be a lot of discussion I am sure, not only between the state or territory and FirstNet/AT&T but also in the press. I also suspect that those who are pushing for opting out will be circling each state and territory like vultures and diving into the discussion along the way. Hopefully, the draft plans will not simply become a tool for some states to use in talking to vendors proposing opt-out solutions. Even if a state is leaning toward opting out, I don’t believe revealing the opt-in plan to those outside the state government would be in the best interest of the state or Public Safety community within the state and it may be in violation of Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) that might be in place.

I hope some states will not simply wait until the draft plan is presented and then turn around and issue an RFP that contains the information provided in the draft. So far, the RFPs that have been released have either included the information submitted to FirstNet (e.g., Arizona) or based on the stated needs of the state (e.g., New Hampshire and Alabama) but were not based on knowledge of what the winning bidder is willing to provide to a state or territory. While some may say that would be the best way to obtain a fair comparison, I think it would simply lead to some vendor or vendors stepping up and saying, “We will beat that coverage, trust us!”

While the timing of the release of state plans will not be ideal, I am hopeful that before those at the state level simply pass judgement on the draft or final plans that the local jurisdictions have a chance to review the plan and submit comments. For the most part, the folks at the state level have done a good job of working with FirstNet but there is no way they can know if the coverage being offered in a specific county or city will be acceptable to that jurisdiction or if there need to be some changes to the draft and/or some discussions about the idea of being able to opt-in-plus, which I still believe is the best solution for everyone. Opt in and have the best network possible in the state or territory and then have the right to work with AT&T to enhance coverage and/or capacity where and when it is needed.

To me that is the win-win-win that will make FirstNet what we all know it needs to be: A robust broadband network primarily used for the Public Safety community and able to provide coverage and capacity where and when it is needed. Again, the caveat here is that the network won’t be perfect at the start. It will take time to work the kinks out and for those in the field to learn how to take full advantage of the network. FirstNet can be what we all want it to be and, by the way, don’t plan on getting rid of your Land Mobile Radio Public Safety systems anytime soon—both networks will be needed long into the future!

Andrew M. Seybold

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