The First Responder Network Authority, or FirstNet, is a federal program created by Congress in 2012 in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Police and fire departments were unable to communicate with each other that morning over incompatible radio systems. The FirstNet program aims to fix that with a secure communications network for first responders across all 50 states.
But New Hampshire could become the first state to officially opt out of the national program, and build its own, statewide network. Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with John Stevens, the Statewide Interoperability Coordinator at the Department of Safety.
(Editor's note: this transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.)
Let’s talk about why this program was created to begin with. And why do lawmakers think that this communications network is so important to have?
FirstNet was created by Congress as an opportunity for first responders to be able to continue to communicate in the most dire of situations. Unfortunately what we witnessed in 9/11, Katrina, Sandy, and we even witnessed it during the Boston Marathon bombing, was that LTE broadband networks become overly saturated during critical events, which limits the capability for first responders to be able to communicate.
This is because everybody is trying to use cell towers at the same time. The communications system just gets bogged down.
Yeah, the whole network gets really saturated. And fortunately when first responders really need to be able to communicate based on the events that are taking place, what FirstNet will all first responders do is have that dedicated network where they will never lose connectivity. FirstNet actually awarded a contract to AT&T, and AT&T will provide that service if in fact a state wishes to opt into FirstNet. However, we understood that there would be under-served areas throughout the country. And basically looking at rural states with a lot of rural territory, we felt that there would be a need, if in fact the law would allow, for states to actually direct and build its own network.
So in New Hampshire we're talking about areas like the North Country where there is traditionally less cell coverage to begin with, right?
Yeah I mean, we're looking at the North Country, and we're looking, certainly, at the western part of the state as well where are there are issues in regards communications.
Why is there confusion over FirstNet? I know 29 states have officially decided to opt into the program. The deadline apparently is the end of this year, the end of December. What issues is New Hampshire having with FirstNet particularly?
There is no better advocate for FirstNet than the state of New Hampshire, because we realize what FirstNet could mean for our first responders. But yet the law when FirstNet was created, allowed states if in fact they wanted to enter into a public-private partnership, they could in fact continue to associate with FirstNet, but take on the responsibility to build their own network. And we felt that we would be in a good position to do that if in fact we could find a vendor that was willing to work with us. And in fact on September 7th of 2016, the governor and council awarded a no cost, no obligation contract to a vendor called Rivada Networks. Rivada Networks and New Hampshire have been working together now for the last year, creating an alternative plan.
What would the advantage of having New Hampshire build its own network be over joining the national FirstNet program?
With New Hampshire building his own network, it then provides the opportunity for local control. We would have local control of the network, rather than passing that network out of state.
And the idea would be we could use that network for statewide emergencies as well as anything that would be a large level emergency, correct?
Well AT&T says that they would build additional towers and utilize rural providers. And spokespeople have said that there is no other provider that can bring that level of coverage to New Hampshire, especially within the North Country, but you disagree.
And why is that?
Well, currently right now in New Hampshire less than 5 percent of first responders in New Hampshire have AT&T service. So, it would be a total recalculation of the network to bring first responders onto the AT&T network. So what we're looking for through the Rivada plan and through the New Hampshire collaboration with Rivada is setting up a cell carrier that is neutral. So not making any difference what cell carrier you currently have now, we’d be able to plug you into the FirstNet network.
When it comes to our situation, everyone would have access to the same network.
That is the goal.