Vermont has already decided to opt in to AT&T’s build-out of a nationwide public safety LTE network, but leaked documents from consultants’ assessments of the First Responders Network Authority plans in Vermont have made some state officials fear that they could face a lawsuit from AT&T, according to published reports.

VTDigger reported that FirstNet opponent and government accountability proponent Stephen Whitaker tried to hand a copy of two consultants’ review of the FirstNet plans, which he had obtained from “a confidential source,”  to the head of Vermont’s House Energy and Technology Committee during a recent committee meeting, with chairman Rep. Stephen Carr refusing to accept it on the grounds that it contained AT&T trade secrets. John Quinn, Vermont’s chief information officer and secretary of its Agency of Digital Service — which commissioned the reports in question — later sent an email (obtained by VTDigger) to state officials who had received copies of the report, including members of the Public Safety Broadband Commission, trying to ascertain who had leaked the documents and warning about potential legal liability. VTDigger reported that AT&T has already sent a notice to Whitaker to stop disseminating the information. 

The consultants’ reviews were part of the information gathered by the state commission to make its recommendation to Governor Phil Scott on whether to opt in to the AT&T FirstNet build-out. According to the commission, independent reviews were requested from Televate and Couer Business Group and those reviews “independently supported” an opt-in decision, as did the state treasurer’s office.

However, VTDigger concluded from its review of the unredacted documents that “at least some of the areas blacked out are not likely to be competitively sensitive but could cast the FirstNet-AT&T plan in a negative light,” including questions about the extent to which Vermont could hold AT&T directly responsible for not living up to promises about network reliability and coverage — as opposed to having to funnel complaints through FirstNet, which holds the contract with AT&T. The publication also quoted an email response from state auditor Douglas Hoffer, who was also sent the email by Quinn, that “for the record, having read the report, I really don’t understand why it is deemed confidential at all, but that’s not my call.”

Although FirstNet has spent years doing outreach to the states and territories to get buy-in on a national communications network, the process of the proposal of state plans and their details has been much more restricted in terms of information flow. While the Request for Proposal process was largely public, with some information restricted on the basis of proprietary technology, the contract between FirstNet and AT&T is not. FirstNet and AT&T also have limited public information about intended coverage areas and build-out information, citing both competitive and security issues to free flow of that information, which was a point of concern among the states prior to the plans being released and has drawn public criticism from former governors and competitor Rivada Networks. State plans were released through a limited-access portal. FirstNet is also exempt from public records requests under the Freedom of Information Act, and earlier this year  the agency rejected a FoIA request from Whitaker and David Gram, a reporter for VTDigger who has been covering FirstNet issues, including the current leak.

At the time, Whitaker criticized the rejection of the FoIA request and told the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council in an email that there was a need for more transparency by FirstNet “and precisely what privacy, reliability and accountability compromises we are being asked to make through this highly unusual, cleverly lobbied and marketed yet opaque multi-billion dollar, 25 year procurement process.”

Whitaker also laid out his assessment of the consultants’ “flawed basis” for Gov. Scott’s opt-in decision, in a scathing opinion piece published on Vermont Biz.

Governors have a little more than two weeks left before the Dec. 28th deadline for opt in/opt-out decisions. Opting in does not obligate a state’s first responders to become AT&T customers; but opting out does place some obligations on the state as the operator of its own FirstNet-compatible Radio Access Network, including paying significant penalties if a state’s opt-out build fails and FirstNet has to take over and reconstitute the network.

In other FirstNet news, Missouri has become the most recent state to opt in to AT&T’s RAN build-out. That makes a total of 36 out of 56 states and territories which have opted in to FirstNet at this point, with decisions by large states such as California, Florida and New York still pending. New Hampshire has been the only state to opt out thus far, and has awarded the contract for its RAN to Rivada Networks, with U.S. Cellular as a carrier partner.

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