Not Everyone's On Board With Sununu's Decision To Opt Out Of Federal First Responders Network

Dec 19, 2017

Credit firstnet.gov

Gov. Chris Sununu announced his decision for New Hampshire to opt out of FirstNet at the beginning of December.

FirstNet is a federal communications network that will connect first responders across all 50 states in the event of an emergency or disaster. New Hampshire would instead use an alternative plan to build its own statewide network using a company called Rivada Networks.

The Executive Council still has to vote to approve the contract, and not everyone is on board.

Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with Liisa Rajala, the associate editor of the New Hampshire Business Review. She’s been following the state’s relationship with FirstNet closely.

(Editor's note: this transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.)

So Liisa, what is the case that people are making in opposition to opting out of FirstNet?

People I’ve talked to are concerned about the state’s financial liability should it opt out. If it had opted into the federal network with AT&T, it wouldn’t have a contract with AT&T, but the state also wouldn’t be financially on the hook if AT&T did not follow through. But with Rivada Networks, the FirstNet independent agency had released a spectrum lease management agreement that showed New Hampshire could be on the hook for $10-600 million if the network were to fail.

Now, I’ve talked with some individuals. And actually, the governor’s legal counsel John Formella has said that is not a realistic number, and they’ve talked with FirstNet. But there’s still concerns over what could happen if New Hampshire contracts with Rivada and the network does not meet its expectations.

It needs to meet certain federal requirements in order to qualify as part of the system, correct?

It does. And there are safeguards in the sense that they first have to talk with the FCC and then the NTIA [National Telecommunications and Information Administration] to establish that the network will be interoperable and be capable of connecting to other states’ networks.

Are there some Executive Council members that are on board with the governor’s decision to opt out and go with Rivada? And are there others who are saying no, we need to go with the federal system?

As far as I’ve seen there are no Executive Councilor members who are supportive of Rivada. Everyone seems to be critical, but they need to learn more. They have not sat down and talked with Rivada Networks yet, though I know AT&T has reached out to council members.

Rivada tells me they were waiting and didn’t want to break protocol in reaching out to executive councilors. Andru Valinsky and Joe Kenney have expressed concerns regarding the state’s financial liability and whether Rivada can carry out this network since they have not built a public safety network of this kind.

So the governor’s word here is not final. I mean, the Executive Council still has to vote on this.

Yes, but it is a tight deadline because the state has to officially make its decision by Dec. 28. Though as I mentioned, there are some safeguards in the process should the FCC or the National Telecommunications and Information Administration determine that this network will not work.  

Well, what do we know about Rivada Networks?

Well, Rivada Networks is a telecommunications company that’s owned by Irish entrepreneur Declan Ganley. They have built communications networks in Europe, as well as after Hurricane Katrina. In Louisiana, they built a temporary public safety network, but that was before LTE technology.

How could New Hampshire potentially benefit from opting out of the AT&T system?

If New Hampshire opts out, they’re able to build the network under state control. So, in talking with Rivada Networks I know that there are more cellular sites than what was discussed with AT&T. There are also concerns by the statewide operability committee, which unanimously voted to contract with Rivada Networks. They saw inconsistencies with AT&T’s coverage maps that they were showing them.

Brian Shepard, who is the director of broadband services at UNH, told me that they knew of real world examples of sites in New Hampshire that did not have AT&T coverage, but that AT&T was showing had coverage on their maps. And there were concerns over that, as well as the fact that less than 5 percent of first responders use AT&T’s service.

So when is this all going to be decided? Is the Executive Council vote going to be the final decision here?

The Executive Council is going to meet on Dec. 20. It’s not clear to me whether they are going to vote on this decision yet. It could be carried over into the New Year when they’ll be discussing the Rivada contract. That will be after the Dec. 28 deadline, but that’s not exactly a hard deadline.

There are a couple months where states will be talking with the FCC if they decide to opt out on whether their network will have the capability of being interoperable with other state networks. And that is an opportunity. You know, if they show that the network is not compatible, then the state is just defaulted into opting in to FirstNet.