FirstNet officials 'confident' states see its appeal as kickoff meeting wraps up

State officials are beginning to warm to the idea of a single nationwide network for first responders, FirstNet authorities said Thursday. But just how many will eventually sign on is far from clear.

FirstNet wrapped up a two-day kickoff meeting outside Dallas Thursday that was held largely to explain its offering to potential customers—56 U.S. states and territories, often called SPOCs (state single points of contact)—and answer questions. Representatives from some of those SPOCs didn’t exactly embrace FirstNet at the outset of the meeting, said Chris Sambar, senior vice president for AT&T FirstNet.

“I’m going to be totally honest: The first day you had a lot of people walk in the door with skepticism on their face because they didn’t know what the solution was,” Sambar said during a conference call Thursday afternoon. “And they had a lot of questions and they were kind of a little bit stiff.”

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The FirstNet organization was created in 2012 but the U.S. Department of Commerce didn’t award the contract to a service provider until March, when it granted AT&T the right to build the nation’s first network dedicated to first responders. FirstNet couldn’t cement its plans until a service provider was named, so until recently it had little information to share with potential customers.

But as representatives from the SPOCs learned more about the service this week, they began to see its appeal, according to Sambar.

“The mood clearly softened over the hours and over the next two days” during the meeting, he said. “There were lots of people shaking my hand saying, ‘This is great.’”

Sambar’s sentiments were echoed by Rich Reed, FirstNet’s chief customer officer.

“I think it was a little awkward during the morning session” on the first day of the meeting, Reed said. “But it quickly warmed. I think people really appreciated the breadth and depth of the technological expertise AT&T brought to the table.”

The nation’s second-largest operator will get access to FirstNet’s 20 MHz of 700 MHz low-band spectrum and $6.5 billion for designing and operating the nationwide network for federal, state and local authorities, with the right to sell excess capacity on the system. AT&T will spend roughly $40 billion over the life of the 25-year contract to deploy and maintain the network, the Department of Commerce said, integrating its network assets with FirstNet.

The kickoff meeting comes on the heels of a report by FedScoop two weeks ago indicating “a majority of states” are preparing to opt out of FirstNet’s offering. That story, which cites “several” unnamed industry sources, said some SPOCs have become dissatisfied with FirstNet’s “bureaucratic approach” and harbor fears the service may not fit their specific needs.

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Rivada Networks, which lost the FirstNet contract to AT&T, said last week that it continues to respond to states that issue RFPs seeking vendors willing to build and maintain a statewide public safety LTE radio access network (RAN) that would be interoperable with FirstNet’s offering. States have a legal right to opt out of FirstNet’s service, and Rivada is positioning its offering as an alternative.

Sambar said he believes states are increasingly seeing FirstNet’s appeal, although he declined to predict how many will ultimately approve deployments.

“I won’t speculate over opt in vs. opt out, except to tell you I’m feeling very good about what I’ve been hearing in the states I’ve been visiting, which has been a number of them,” Sambar said. “We’re feeling very confident that the states like the solution, and this conference did nothing but reinforce that they like this solution, so I’m feeling very confident that we’re going to have a great nationwide, interoperable network.”