Is FirstNet necessary? System wouldn’t replace radio for first responders
EAGLE COUNTY — Eagle County taxpayers spend about $500,000 a year on a first responder radio system, covering about 95 percent of the county.
That’s not good enough for the federal government, which is demanding that we also either buy into a nationwide system built with $7 billion in federal money for AT&T, or that states like Colorado build its own system.
Among the concerns is that AT&T won’t say how much it will cost to use its system until after states decide to buy in, say a growing number of local, state and federal lawmakers.
“It’s a forced choice. You either buy this or set up an alternative system,” said Kathy Chandler-Henry, Eagle County Commissioner, and a member of Colorado’s statewide FirstNet committee. “It’s fair to ask if this is even necessary. The original intent was a simple system that would allow first responders to communicate with each other.”
Instead, it has morphed into a potential cash cow for AT&T.
A quarter century of spectrum
AT&T’s contract runs 25 years through the quasi-governmental First Responder Network Authority, known as FirstNet. Congress slid the mandate into an unrelated bill in 2012. The plan was to build a national data network for the nation’s police, fire and other emergency services agencies, a goal recommended by the 9/11 Commission almost 15 years ago.
States can build its own system, as long as they’re compatible with FirstNet. Governors have until Dec. 29 to decide whether they want in or out.
Until governors announce their decisions, AT&T won’t reveal what it is going to charge emergency service agencies to use the network. A trio of Vermont lawmakers, Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders and Rep. Peter Welch wrote FirstNet Chief Executive Officer Mike Poth asking for more information on the network.
The pricing structure is complex, and depends on what type of device you are talking about (car-trunk mounted modem vs. smartphone vs. tablet) and whether or not you’re on a unlimited data plan vs. a pooled data plan, said Brian Shepherd, Colorado’s FirstNet contact person.
“At this point I don’t think there’s a way to clearly identify what the costs will be,” Shepherd said.
Shepherd did not answer a question in a Monday, Nov. 27, email asking, “If someone used their cell phone to call for help, would FirstNet enable first responders to arrive more quickly?”
Nope, it’s pretty clear
Brian Carney, Rivada’s senior vice president, said it’s as simple as a penny. Rivada has been offering states, including Colorado, an alternative to AT&T.
Rivada will charge first responders 1 cent per month per device to use the network his company builds, Carney said.
AT&T is proposing charging between $40 and $60 a month per device, Carney said, about what they charge commercial customers and companies.
“They’re getting this spectrum free from the government, then charging first responders. That’s good work if you can get it,” Carney said. “We felt you should extend the savings to first responders, who should be on this for free or next to nothing.”
The new 20-megahertz of spectrum is enough to serve hundreds of times more users than there are first responders, Carney said.
“There will always be spare capacity on this network, as there are on all networks. They make money by the sale of that excess capacity,” Carney said.
Testifying before the House Energy and Commerce Committee during a Capital Hill hearing last month, Chris Sambar, AT&T vice president, told the committee that “AT&T is a for-profit company and we’re going to make money from this. I’m not trying to hide that fact.”
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and firstname.lastname@example.org.