Congress passed the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act in 2012, which created FirstNet as an independent authority within the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration and gave it the responsibility to build, operate, and maintain a nationwide wireless broadband network dedicated to first responders. The law also allocated portions of the nationwide 700 Mhz spectrum (D-block) and $7 billion for construction of the network. FirstNet is tasked with leveraging existing telecommunications infrastructure and assets and to contain costs by exploring public/private partnerships. The law mandates FirstNet be self-sufficient and not require any additional government funding.
For the next three years, FirstNet built an organization from the ground up - hiring staff, interpreting their legal status as a quasi-governmental organization, getting input from the public safety community about what they would want from the network (partially by creating a public safety expert-filled Public Safety Advisory Committee), and working on a draft Request For Proposal to attract a commercial partner. The draft RFP was finally released on April 27, 2015 and contained the proposed design and operation of the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network. A contract was awarded to AT&T in March, 2017, to partner with FirstNet to deliver high-speed connectivity (cellular) to first responders in all 50 states and territories.
Broad Terms of the 25-Year Agreement Between FirstNet and AT&T
- FirstNet will provide 20 MHz of high-value, telecommunications spectrum and $6.5 billion over the next five years to support the network buildout - FirstNet's funding was raised from previous FCC spectrum auctions.
- AT&T will spend about $40 billion over the life of the contract to build, deploy, operate and maintain the network, with a focus on ensuring robust coverage for public safety.
- AT&T will connect FirstNet users to the company's telecommunication network assets, valued at more than $180 billion. Once a state opts-in, public safety users will have access to all spectrum bands now available commercially by AT&T and the user will not have to wait for any build-out within the specific spectrum provided by FirstNet.
- AT&T will provide priority and pre-emption abilities for FirstNet subscribers as the network is developed. Immediate priority is granted to public safety users as they subscribe. Pre-emption abilities to be offered late in 2017/early 2018.
- AT&T is allowed to lease wireless services to traditional consumer customers—on a secondary basis, behind public-safety prioritized traffic—while utilizing FirstNet spectrum.
- To ensure that the contractor does not use the FirstNet spectrum simply to pursue commercial subscribers, the FirstNet contractor will face financial penalties if public-safety users do not subscribe to the FirstNet system at targeted levels.
- Public safety users will receive the most favored customer pricing on the network and have a uniform customer experience throughout the FirstNet system.
- Public safety users are not required to adopt the FirstNet system. The FirstNet offering needs to be attractive enough, based on performance and user cost, to convince public safety users to subscribe to the network.
The Governor’s Decision
With a contract awarded, FirstNet and AT&T began immediate work on coverage plans for each state. The plans outlined how they would build out the Radio Access Network in every state and territory in the U.S. Draft state plans were transmitted to states on June 19. In Vermont, the Public Safety Broadband Network Commission reviewed a draft and final plan and gave feedback to FirstNet. Governor Scott received notice of the final FirstNet plan delivery in September. Upon receiving this notice, Vermont--and all of the states--were given 90 days to review their unique state plan and decide whether to opt-in or opt-out of the network. The deadline for governors to inform FirstNet of their decision was December 28, 2017. At their November 20 meeting, the commission voted to recommend to Governor Phil Scott that he should opt-in to the FirstNet plan for Vermont. Governor Scott announced on November 29 that Vermont would accept the federal build-out plan for FirstNet. For states that choose to opt-in, the responsibility and costs to fully build and manage the network will rest on FirstNet and AT&T. All 50 states opted-in to the federal plan. Had a state chosen to opt-out, that state would take on the responsibility of establishing and maintaining the network for up to 25 years. Opting-out states were required to meet stringent requirements to ensure the nationwide system remained interoperable, reliable and sustainable. Opt-out states would also have had to receive approval from the Federal Communications Commission, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and FirstNet. There's more information on the Governor's decision on the opt-in/opt-out page of this web site.