Communications Daily: Colorado Prepares Alternative to FirstNet State Plan

cdlogoJune 9, from Communications Daily
By Adam Bender

Colorado will be prepared to build its own radio access network (RAN) for the national public safety network and may reject FirstNet’s proposal if the federal plan doesn’t meet the state’s expectations, a state official said Tuesday at the live-streamed Mountain Connect conference in Keystone, Colorado. Brian Shepherd, broadband program manager for the governor’s IT office and Colorado’s single point of contact for the FirstNet project, described an ambitious state goal to cover 97 percent of the state’s mountainous geography. Shepherd expects to receive FirstNet’s federal plan in fall 2017, giving Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) 90 days to decide between the federal approach or the alternative state plan.

“The overall task of opting out is very, very difficult,” said Shepherd. “But our perspective is that this is really a sea change for communication, and it’s probably one of the most important decisions we’ll make in terms of first-responder communications in the next 25 years. So we would not be doing our job if we didn’t fully vet all potential options and figure out what is the best way to go forward.” When it’s time to decide, Shepherd wants to hand the governor two detailed plans -- one by FirstNet and one by the state -- with an analysis of each, he said. “I could be surprised. The FirstNet plan that’s presented to us in 18 months could cover 95 percent of the state and … charge [$20] to the first responders and we might be blown away. … But I don’t want to rely on that to happen.”

Colorado has unique public safety challenges due to its geography -- for example, if a tourist gets stuck on a mountain, public safety has to go up and get the individual down without losing the ability to communicate, he said. But FirstNet’s initial proposed coverage map, sent about 18 months ago, missed important areas of the state, he said. While covering more than 90 percent of the state's population, it covered only 24 percent of its geography, he said. So the state developed its own map, including residences, recreational areas, transportation infrastructure and sources of 911 emergency calls across the state, he said. The state’s plan proposes covering 97 percent of the state’s geography, he said. “I will be first to admit that is a bold, bold goal, and I don’t know if it’s possible. But … I would rather shoot for 97 and get 90 than shoot for 24 and get 24.”

The state also differed with FirstNet on time frame, Shepherd said. The initial federal plan envisioned a five-year phased implementation, but Shepherd said he “can’t go to a rural sheriff and say Denver gets it this year and you get it in five years.” The state prefers a three-year rollout, with rural areas prioritized over big cities, he said. “There’s going to be a financial incentive [for the winning FirstNet bidder] to build out the population centers no matter what,” he said. “If we put the burden on them to build out the rural areas first, then there will be a natural progression to build out the whole state quicker.”

State opt-outs could confuse the economics of the public safety network, but FirstNet is developing a strategy for such a scenario, said FirstNet Director-State Plans Richard Reed in April. “There are significant challenges with the economics of this network for a long time if and when states choose the path of opt-out,” he said at the time. “Because when a state takes on that responsibility, it changes the cost basis for FirstNet, as well as the revenue basis for the entire network, the deployment, and adoption of users for the entire network.”

"FirstNet intends to deliver a state plan to the Governor of each state that is inclusive of the best coverage and capacity RAN deployment that is fiscally sustainable over the life of the network,” a FirstNet spokesman emailed Wednesday. In late 2015, FirstNet collected additional data from Colorado and other states in an effort to get a better picture of their requirements. “We will continue to work closely with Colorado to ensure the governor fully understands the value proposition associated with the state plan and is able to make an informed decision," the spokesman said.

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