What Will Happen at FirstNet During the Next Few Years? Check Out This Timeline for Potential Answers

By Stephanie Waye FirstNet, NPSBN, Public Safety, Award, AT&T With 0 Comments

April 6, 2017

 in Urgent Matters

Now that AT&T officially is the contractor charged with building, operating and upgrading FirstNet’s nationwide public-safety broadband network (NPSBN), the most-asked questions have revolved around the cost of service and when service would be available.

Neither answer is available at the moment, which is completely understandable. By all accounts, staff for both FirstNet and AT&T each have been preparing for months to be ready to move as quickly as possible toward deployment of the much-anticipated network, but they really weren’t able to speak to each other until the award was announced a week ago. One of the best quotes heard at IWCE 2017 last week compared the FirstNet situation to “trying to plan a wedding without being able to talk with the bride.”

Despite this, AT&T and FirstNet provided some notable news about their plans by revealing that FirstNet public-safety subscribers would get priority access—to be upgraded to preemption, when that becomes available near the end of the year—across all of AT&T’s spectrum bands after their state’s governor accepts the FirstNet state plan.

“That is a huge thing for public safety, because that means that public safety—once the governor agrees to an opt in—that automatically becomes available to everybody in that state,” Harlin McEwen, then-chairman of FirstNet’s public-safety advisory committee (PSAC) said during an IWCE session. “That’s a huge starting point, because it will take awhile to get the eNodeBs for FirstNet Band 14 installed all through a state. But you’ll have immediate access to a priority amount of spectrum from AT&T.

“It’s a tremendous agreement. That’s just almost unbelievable. I have to be really more than pleased about that announcement.”

Meanwhile, FirstNet and AT&T officials are striving to determine when draft state plans and final state plans will be delivered, as well as scheduling outreach to all 56 states and territories.

“We are working with AT&T to develop the final schedule for the delivery of state plans,” according to FirstNet spokesperson. “Our goal is to move as quickly as possible to ensure the governors have all the information to make an informed decision and deliver a solution to public safety as soon as possible.”

As the public-safety community awaits for more details, the fact that the award to AT&T was finalized last Thursday does give us some insight about the timing of some key events associated with the FirstNet system moving forward. That’s because the FirstNet request for proposals (RFP) outlined deployment stages and milestones for its contractor to meet.

With this in mind, I created a timeline based on dates provided in the RFP, the law that established FirstNet, and some other information that is available publicly.

Before we get started, it is important to note that this timeline is merely a journalist’s estimate created only for guidance purposes—in other words, “actual mileage may vary,” as manufacturers note in car commercials. This is particularly true for dates that are not stipulated in the law, as well as for dates that fall on weekends or holidays. In addition, it assumes that FirstNet and AT&T meet the timelines outlined in the RFP.

More significantly, this timeline does not attempt to account for myriad possible complicating factors, such as potential legal action. For instance, will a state challenge some of FirstNet’s legal interpretations regarding the “opt-out” process in court? If so, will the delay impact only the state making the challenge, or will it impact all states?

In addition, there are questions about what constitutes a “complete” RFP by an “opt-out” state, which the law states must be executed within 180 days after the governor decides to pursue the “opt-out” alternative. If a state finishes its procurement process but the award is subject to a legal protest that causes a delay beyond the 180-day deadline, it’s not clear how that would be handled and what impact it would have on the timeline.

Bottom line: no one should confuse this timeline as an official document. However, for those wanting a generic timeline for planning purposes, we hope this will be helpful.

March 30, 2017: As announced last week, this is the date of the award to AT&T for the 25-year contract—a date that serves as the starting point for all timeline activities cited in the FirstNet RFP.

June 9, 2017: Scheduled date for the 3GPP standards body to finalize LTE Release 14, which is expected to include some enhanced mission-critical functions and greater Internet of Things (IoT) capabilities, including reduced latency in machine-to-machine communications. Many in the wireless industry believe this LTE release will represent the initial standards development of 5G wireless technology.

Sept. 30, 2017: Six months after the award, FirstNet and AT&T are slated to meet their first major milestones, known as the first Initial Operational Capability (IOC) stage, or IOC-1. State plans for FirstNet deployment are scheduled to be delivered to all 56 states and territories. The state plans will be reviewed by governors prior to deciding whether to accept the FirstNet plan or pursue the “opt-out” alternative. If a governor accepts the state plan, public-safety agencies within the state immediately will be allowed to subscribe to preemptive service on all AT&T commercial spectrum bands while the carrier builds out the Band 14 network.

Also by this date, the FCC and NTIA are supposed to release details about their “opt-out” review criteria, and the NTIA will provide construction-grant information for each state, if it chooses to pursue the “opt-out” alternative.

Note that this target date is included in the RFP, not the law, so there is some wiggle room, if needed. In addition, Sept. 30 falls on a Saturday, which may not be an ideal time to deliver state plans.

Dec. 29, 2017: By law, each governor will have 90 days to review the FirstNet state plan and either accept it or decide to pursue the “opt-out” alternative, which would make the state responsible for building, maintaining and upgrading the radio access network (RAN) within its borders while maintaining interoperability with the nationwide FirstNet system. If a governor takes no action, FirstNet will build the RAN, just as it would if the governor accepted the state plan.

While the 90-day period is mandated by law—therefore, unlikely to be changed—the state-plan delivery date is not dictated by the law, so many sources believe steps could be taken in an effort to ensure that governors do not have to make such an important decision during a typical holiday week.

March 2018: LTE Release 13 equipment that supports key public-safety features like mission-critical push-to-talk (MCPTT) functionality is expected to be commercially available by this time, according to most industry analysts. Some features likely will be developed earlier and tested during 2017, according to sources.

March 30, 2018: Target deadline for IOC-2, which marks the first coverage milestone for the Band 14 network, according to the RFP. With IOC-2, 20% of planned Band 14 coverage—both in rural and non-rural areas—is scheduled to be completed. Static quality of service, priority and preemption (QPP) are schedule to be implemented throughout the Band 14 system. All financial systems associated with FirstNet should be completed by this point, according to the RFP.

June 27, 2018: By law, any state or territory seeking to pursue the “opt-out” alternative will need to complete its RFP process 180 days after its governor makes the opt-out decision and present its alternative RAN plan to the FCC for review. The date cited here is 180 days from the Dec. 29 mentioned previously as a target deadline for governors to make their opt-out decisions.

After this, progress in the opt-out states and territories becomes less predictable, because the law does not establish timelines for the FCC and NTIA to make their respective decisions on the opt-out proposal (although the FCC has expressed interest in completing its interoperability review within 90 days, as long as there are not so many states participating in the “opt-out” process that is becomes impractical). In addition, there is no guidance regarding a timeline associated with FirstNet’s negotiation of a spectrum lease agreement with an opt-out state or territory.

March 30, 2019: Target deadline for the completion of IOC-3, which represents perhaps the most notable stage in the FirstNet deployment process. At this point, 60% of planned Band 14 coverage—and 50% of the final device-connections targets—is scheduled for completion in both rural and non-rural markets. In addition, the first phase of LTE Release 13 mission-critical systems such as MCPTT and public-safety-grade voice over LTE (VoLTE) are scheduled to be operational, and dynamic quality of service, priority and preemption (QPP) is supposed to be implemented throughout the system.

June 2019: LTE Release 14 equipment should be commercially available, according to most industry sources.

March 30, 2020: Target deadline for the completion of IOC-4, which calls for 80% of the final Band 14 coverage goals—in rural and non-rural markets—to be completed. From a functionality standpoint, mission-critical video and ProSe enhancements, which are designed to support direct-mode communications, are scheduled to be implemented.

March 30, 2021: Target deadline for IOC-5, which calls for 95% of all planned Band 14 coverage in both rural and non-rural markets to be completed, as well as 100% of the public-safety device-connection targets being met. At this point, LTE Release 14 gear should be integrated into the FirstNet system, according to the RFP.

March 30 2022: Target deadline for the Final Operational Capability (FOC), when AT&T is scheduled to meet 100% of its coverage goals in both rural and non-rural markets. After this, the contractor will pay financial penalties if public-safety adoption does not meet its goals established when the award was made. All security, hardening and integration of other public-safety communications systems (for example, 911 centers) also will be completed, after going through several phases of development during the previous years.

2022-2042: FirstNet officials have been outspoken in stating that the organization is committed to the notion that nationwide public-safety broadband network will be upgraded as technology evolves, so the first-responder community never has to use obsolete communications. Exactly how that will be executed has not yet been announced publicly.

March 30, 2042: Initial FirstNet contract expires.