Deadline looms for Colorado and other states to decide to join national first-responder system

Brian Shepherd is Colorado contact person for First Responder Network Authority, or FirstNet, a nationwide first responder communications system. The feds mandated the system in 2012, and states have until Dec. 28 to decide whether they want to join or build their own system.
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After taking five years to plan a nationwide first responders network, the federal government gave states only 90 days to say whether they want in or out.

The First Responder Network Authority, or FirstNet, authorizes AT&T to build a national wireless data network designed for first responders. AT&T will be able to use the system for commercial purposes, but when first responders need it, other users will be bumped down to a lower bandwidth.

The feds are spending $6.5 billion on it.

Testifying before the House Energy and Commerce Committee during a Capital Hill hearing on Wednesday morning, Nov. 1, Chris Sambar, AT&T’s vice president, told the committee his company will spend $40 billion to build and maintain the network. While the network will primarily be for first responders, AT&T and other companies could use it commercially.

“AT&T is a for-profit company, and we’re going to make money from this. I’m not trying to hide that fact,” Sambar said.

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Rural coverage

Eagle County Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry is part of Colorado’s FirstNet committee. Colorado’s issue is rural coverage, she said.

“The providers think we get more coverage than we do,” Chandler-Henry said.

Local Colorado State Patrol and Eagle County Sheriff’s Office deputies drove the region’s roads to determine where the dead spots are. They found some, she said.

“There are some holes in the coverage,” Chandler-Henry said.

The White River National Forest is rural, which FirstNet defines as having a population of fewer than five people per square mile. The White River National Forest is also home to 11 ski areas, 10 peaks taller than 14,000 feet and 2,500 miles of trails.

“The White River National Forest is actually one of the areas we targeted for coverage with specific drive testing, as we are concerned about the increasing activity and the existing coverage holes. They (AT&T) are claiming the holes will be fixed within five years,” said Brian Shepherd, Colorado’s FirstNet contact.

AT&T’s Sambar told the House committee Wednesday that his company plans to build more cell towers as part of the system.

Post 9/11 project

The idea for a nationwide first-responder network began with the 9/11 Commission following the 2001 coordinated terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. In 2012, President Barack Obama signed the Middle Class Taxpayer Relief Act. Buried in that bill was the funding to create FirstNet. AT&T won the bid to build the system.

Joining FirstNet won’t be free.

AT&T said it will negotiate pricing, but only after a state opts in, said John Stevens, New Hampshire’s statewide interoperability coordinator. New Hampshire’s oversight committee unanimously recommended opting out, Stevens said.

Federal officials have been working on the plan for five years but did not present the final draft to states until mid-September, Shepard said. That leaves states 90 days to decide whether to join the program by the Dec. 28 deadline.

So far, 25 states and two U.S. territories have decided to join.

Stevens said the 90-day timeline is “unattainable and unrealistic” for states to decide whether to opt out, design their own system and collect bids to build it.

Colorado’s final decision rests with Gov. John Hickenlooper. Hickenlooper is joining New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu and others in determining whether there’s a better and less expensive way to get the network built.

“Clearly, there is pressure to opt in,” Chandler-Henry said.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or

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