The First Responders Network Authority and carrier partner AT&T have passed another hurdle in achieving a nationwide public safety broadband network: the deadline for opt-in/opt-out decisions ended with all fifty states, the District of Columbia, and two U.S. territories deciding to allow AT&T to build out FirstNet coverage — including one state that made a last-minute reversal of an opt-out. This makes the opt-in unanimous nationwide, with three other territories granted additional time to make decisions because their proposed network plans were released later than the others.

Entering the Dec. 28th deadline day, the three most-populous states which had yet to issue decisions were California, New York and Florida. Mississippi made its opt-in choice early in the day, as did New York. That left Florida and California as the hold-outs, and by end of day both had come into the FirstNet fold. California in particular had been closely watched, as a state with a large first-responder population which had pursued its own request for proposal process seeking alternatives to the AT&T/FirstNet plan. Verizon declined to bid on that RFP earlier this month, saying that FirstNet and AT&T’s requirements for an opt-out network to meet were “onerous” and that they were “rigging the game in order to stifle true competition.”

In a blow to Rivada Networks, New Hampshire — the only state to opt out and award a contract to Rivada to build out its state Radio Access Network to interoperate with the rest of the FIrstNet network — saw the writing on the wall and decided not to go it alone as the sole opt-out state in the country. Governor Chris Sununu made a last-minute reversal of his earlier decision and New Hampshire opted in after all.

“Following our decision to opt-out and go with the Rivada plan that provides better coverage, more system control and an opportunity to share in the revenue streams of the business, we proceeded to have extensive discussions with other Governors across the country to help them understand the benefits of such a system,” Sununu said in a statement. “Many of these states had previously expressed serious interest in pursuing an independent opt-out path. While we were successful in working with First Net to remove the unreasonable fees and penalties, the decision deadline of December 28th approached too quickly for these other states to feel confident in an opt-out decision. As a result, it now appears likely that no other states will opt-out. While Rivada’s plan remains the better option for New Hampshire, I have determined that the additional risk associated with being the only state to opt-out creates too high a barrier for New Hampshire to continue down the opt-out path alone. … By moving to opt-in today, New Hampshire will retain AT&T’s commitment to build 48 new tower sites across the state. These new sites will lead to a top quality public safety network for our first responders and enhanced coverage for all of our citizens. I look forward to working with AT&T as they begin the build out and deployment of their New Hampshire plan, and I pledge to continue our efforts to ensure that FirstNet remains responsive to the public safety needs of every state.”

The state opt-in/opt-out process has been sometimes fraught for FirstNet and AT&T, coming under fire for lack of transparency and high barriers to opting out; states wanting direct accountability from AT&T rather than FirstNet, and with Rivada discouraging states from opting in as it tried to set itself up as a viable alternative after losing out on the FirstNet contract. AT&T plans to use the FirstNet build-out of Band 14 support as an avenue for doing additional network work of its own to bolster its network capacity, and the FirstNet contract win puts AT&T in a position to compete more effectively for the public safety user market, where Verizon has the largest market share (about two-thirds of first responders, according to the carrier). AT&T launched “ruthless preemption” services earlier this month as part of its commitment to enable first responders to access its network even in times of congestion, and Verizon has similar plans.

With nationwide opt-ins secured, the agency and AT&T now face the challenge of wooing public safety customers. Opting in to the AT&T build-out does not obligate a state’s first responders to become AT&T/FIrstNet customers, and public safety market leader Verizon has made it clear that it plans to compete on pricing with offerings from FirstNet as well as build its own public safety core network for secure application traffic. 

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