Former D.C. Tech Chief: City Well-Set For New Safety Network, But Worries About Arm-Twisting

My hometown, Washington D.C., and other governments may be well-positioned to exit a federal first responder program in favor of a local system, but commercial arm-twisting and dire predictions may make that difficult, according to the city's former chief tech officer.

Robert LeGrande, the former Chief Technology Officer of the District of Columbia, is also a former Program Executive for the National Capitol Region’s Interoperability Program. He recently testified during a congressional hearing on a new federal first responder network.

Called “FirstNet,” the network is being developed with special spectrum set aside for that purpose, but states have the option of joining the FirstNet system or “opting out.” It’s getting a bit intense because federal law insists that governors either opt out by Dec. 28 or become part of the system, more or less by default.

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu is among the critics of the FirstNet process, even writing a letter to his fellow governors warning of problems.

LeGrande has more experience on this issue than most. He helped lead the development of the nation’s first city-wide 700 MHz broadband wireless network for first responders. That network, widely considered a model for the nation, was also seen as a test bed for how broadband applications can be shared among first responders and other public safety groups.

He left the public sector to form a firm called The Digital Decision that takes those lessons to help state and local governments.

I had the opportunity for a Q & A with LeGrande about FirstNet, outlined below.

Congressional hearings are famously frustrating for their time limits. What would you like to have said that you didn’t get to say?

If FirstNet’s direction is not corrected, it will create another monopoly for Public Safety (PS) communications and another interoperability problem that will negatively impact PS broadband communications.

On an elevator, as they say, how do you explain the FirstNet issue?

FirstNet selected a commercial technology (LTE) and a commercial solution (AT&T) to develop the next-generation PS communications network. This model is not a closed, private, or dedicated system such as a nuclear attack submarine which requires protections from open competitive marketplaces.

FirstNet and AT&T are implementing private system protections which will result in a [public safety] communications monopoly. The protections include:

  • Implementing unfair and non-competitive opt-out requirements which prevent States from considering opt-out partners and solutions;
  • Developing exclusive applications and applications environment and devices;
  • Limiting or eliminating opportunities for qualified commercial carriers to achieve critically needed interoperability solutions for Identity, Credential, and Access Management (ICAM); priority and preemption protocols; and Push-to-Talk.

How would you advise DC to act at this time? Why not just opt-in?

The District of Columbia Government is well positioned to deploy and operate a public safety broadband communication network under the opt-out provisions due to:

  • Having an expansive fiber optics network;
  • Radio frequency sites that are designed for 700MHz wireless broadband network equipment;
  • Vast federal, state, and local PS and PS-support users which yield a positive business model.

However, the unfair penalties, fees, and requirement to use AT&T’s core (and thereby AT&T’s service) under current opt-out regulations make it very difficult for even the most qualified States to opt-out.

I’ve heard that states waiting for a while to opt-in are getting bonuses, like more coverage – do you know if that’s the case, and if so shouldn’t states just opt out to gain leverage for eventually joining FirstNet?

I have heard of the same “act-now” incentives. If true, this commercial “arm twisting” is the exact behavior that undermines fair and competitive business practices (opt-out) which are in place to ensure AT&T provides the best solution at the best possible price.

At the hearing, FirstNet and AT&T talked about the “risks of opting out.” Then they said the letters outlining the potential financial risks were only “drafts,” and the real agreement is two years away.

It is not surprising that FirstNet and AT&T released the “Draft” opt-out agreements around Halloween as they were clearly designed as “Scare Tactics” to prevent States from considering their legislatively sound right to opt-out.

How can a state fully consider the risks of opting-out without FirstNet providing the “Real” rules that they will face under an opt-out rule?

I strongly suggest that Congress intervene and require that FirstNet finalize all opt-out requirements and, in doing so, give all States (those which have opted in and are pending) additional time to consider “Real” opt-out rules.

Are there risks involved with opting in? What issues remain if a state opts in?

The intent of the opt-out provisions is to provide a competitive alternative that will ensure States have the best possible opt-in offerings. FirstNet’s opt-out rules and regulations have undermined a State’s right to consider viable options, and once a State opts-in, it eliminates any chance of using the Band 14 spectrum or having any leverage to ensure AT&T will provide the best solution at competitive pricing.

Why is the “Band 14” such a big deal? If states take no action or opt-in, have they effectively turned that Band 14 over to FirstNet, or to AT&T, or do they retain it?

  • 700MHz spectrum is some of the most valuable radio frequency spectrum in the marketplace;
  • 50% of the Band 14 spectrum (2008 value $5B) came from the States and local jurisdictions;
  • Opting-in without having the network built where the state needs it, or offering best possible pricing, eliminates the State’s opportunity to get a return off of its investment, forever!

Will first responders get hurt if no state opts out and FirstNet doesn’t allow any other competition?

We need to look no further than where we are today to see what the lack of competition can do to PS communications. Our PS officials are using 1940s technologies while paying monopolistic pricing.

As examples: $4000 walkie-talkie(s); non-interoperable LMR networks which are over-priced and have cost lives.

What happens for first responders if no state opts out – and I’m told none has so far – does that mean the system doesn’t allow any other competition?

To ensure we have the best possible solution at the best possible pricing we must have competition at every level; this includes fair opt-out rules and an open, fair, and competitive PS communications marketplace.

Given the confusion, why not just opt-in and be done with it? It doesn’t cost the state anything, right?

The States and local jurisdictions have already paid by investing $5B in radio frequency spectrum; not considering opt-out due to unfair and non-competitive rules “and” not insisting that FirstNet create an open, fair, and fully interoperable PS broadband communications environment are equivalent to paying cash for a new $1M home and never living in it.

From your experience, how do you view AT&T’s repeated warnings about cyber-security? Does encouraging competition and state networks really endanger FirstNet? How do you view the issue of more than one “core”? Does DC have such a core?

I view AT&T’s cybersecurity concerns as another Halloween scare tactic being used to justify monopolistic positioning. AT&T and all other carriers leverage 3GPP standards that allow for multi-core, multi-carrier configurations every day.

At the recent hearing, you seemed to hint that the role of FirstNet should be to encourage competition, but it seems like it’s in partnership with AT&T to build that network. Is that the case?

A government authority operating under the Department of Commerce -- partnering with a commercial carrier to provide exclusive communications in a commercial marketplace -- is not in the best interest of America’s first responders.

Sara Corcoran is publisher of the National Courts Monitor website, “Your Daily Ration of Civil Justice Rationing” and a frequent commentator on national legal policy and civil courts issues.

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