FirstNet Gets its Teeth: Implications for Turf, Tech, and Tower Vendors

Though reports of nods from early takers have been trickling in, it appears that AT&T/FirstNet will spend a good part of the summer courting state governors to “opt-in” and move as quickly as possible to get rolling with network builds in their states.

The FirstNet network will cover all 50 states, five U.S. territories and the District of Columbia, including rural communities and tribal lands. AT&T and FirstNet’s ultimate goal is to persuade all states, territories, and the District of Columbia that they should allow the company to build radio access network (RANs) for the nationwide safety network rather than using other parties – aka “opting in” to its program.

But the wooing has finite parameters – states have 90 days to decide on whether or not to opt-out. If a state decides to opt-out, it then has another 240 days to present their alternative plans to FirstNet. The clock is ticking.

From there, FirstNet’s RFP schedule identifies specific IOC and FOC milestones (Initial and Final Operational Capabilities) that AT&T will have to meet. These deadlines are targeted to align with the availability and implementation of 3GPP releases, which means dates may be subject to changes.

State Opt-In (or Out)

One of the first critical tests for AT&T rests in its ability to get as many states as possible to opt into the program. There are already indications that states will not simply roll over and take what AT&T has to offer. Though five states have already jumped on board, Arizona, California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Wisconsin are evaluating other, non-AT&T options.

Getting states to opt-in is critical for AT&T as controlling the entire RAN would, theoretically, mean greater control over network deployment and service integration. Moreover, the headache of interconnecting disparate and possibly uniquely built systems would seem to loom as a major management and interoperability hurdle. These are the types of operational impediments that could easily blow up timelines and budgets, as AT&T still must seamlessly interconnect all nationwide RANs to its core network. Without a doubt, operational and technological challenges will be amplified for those “opt-out” states.

But getting states to opt-in, while critical to the process and a focus of much of the initial attention, is merely step one. In the meantime, the implications on the larger tech and telecom communities are considerable and important to address.

Vendor implications:

Turf Vendors

AT&T contracts with wireless infrastructure deployment vendors to build and upgrade its network, across its service markets. In recent years, these partnerships have decreased as work has slowed. This is largely due to network build-outs and technological advances having stabilized and AT&T cutting back its capex accordingly. The AT&T/FirstNet partnership, however, could recharge these partnerships and ultimately be a boon for the company’s stable of turf vendors. It may very well provide them with opportunities to work across AT&T’s services markets – with many of these markets having previously been off limits.

Device/Application (Tech) Partnerships

The FirstNet contract is going to introduce a whole new world of device and application partners to AT&T. Partners that AT&T has probably never dealt with previously – think, for example, of portable communication devices for fire trucks. Motorola Solutions has recently signed on to provide device, messaging, mapping, and other mobile applications. But AT&T has also publicly commented about working with Motorola and other “team” members to help to bring “broadband-enabled devices and apps that will be certified for use by public safety seeking FirstNet services.” There will be plenty of challenges on this front as interfacing in a whole new set of technology groups will present hurdles – particularly as those vendors see the partnership as a potential cash grab. Negotiations will be key in this foreign segment.

A further group of vendors will be competing to provide value added services to first responders over the AT&T network. Apple has spent a decade growing an application store capability, fostering relationships with developers, and figuring out the rules and controls required for a sustainable environment. AT&T will need to do the same and will need to learn the rules of the road quickly.

AT&T will also have to work closely with the First Responder Technologies Division (R-Tech) of the federal government. R-Tech works closely with the nation’s emergency response community to identify and prioritize mission capability gaps (including device/application support) and facilitate rapid development of critical solutions to address responders’ everyday technology needs. This too could be another relationship obstacle for AT&T to learn to navigate.

Tower Operators

The impact to infrastructure owners (towers, fiber, small cells) could be significant as the FirstNet footprint is more expansive than even the biggest networks today. The tower industry’s entry into the larger FirstNet partnerships will be critical to helping keep FirstNet on track and on budget. For example, either on existing or new towers, LTE technology will have to be added to support the new 20 MHz of spectrum set aside for FirstNet. This takes tower and ground space that translates into new rent revenue for tower companies. AT&T probably cannot afford to not use tower operators’ assets because of the timeline put in place, so a boost for cell tower operators such as American Tower, Crown Castle, and SBA Communications is probable.

Here’s the rub – in the past, AT&T has been vocal about breaking the traditional tower company (lease) model. We can definitely see AT&T going outside the traditional tower space and exploring alternative vendors to build new sites when it makes sense. The reality, however, is that AT&T may not have the time to disrupt the tower industry and standoff against the biggest players. This likely makes the large tower companies inevitable options to meet stated timeline demands. The savviness of AT&T’s past contracting with these providers will be on full display as they attempt to manage costs and schedules.

Fifteen years in the making

There are certain to be bumps in the road and nothing is guaranteed, but with the award announcement, FirstNet is finally on its way to meeting the lofty goals set forth by the 9/11 Commission. Provided AT&T/FirstNet can convince first responders to subscribe, states to opt-in, and AT&T does indeed make good on its promise to create a true nationwide network, there is plenty to be optimistic (and opportunistic) about.

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