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AT&T and FirstNet are slashing the opt-in timeline for the first responder network buildout, giving states eager to participate the ability to green light the project as soon as they’re ready.

In a Thursday media call following FirstNet’s State Plan Kickoff meeting, FirstNet Chief Customer Officer Rich Reed and AT&T’s SVP of FirstNet Chris Sambar explained the organization will no longer be issuing “draft state plans” this month but rather just “state plans.” The distinction there is that states will be able to move forward with the first iteration of the plan if they’re comfortable with it.

As outlined by Reed, FirstNet is planning to distribute all the state plans at once later this month. Once the states receive their plans, they will have 45 days to review them and return comments, after which AT&T and FirstNet would have another 45 days to adjudicate those comments. Once that’s settled, states would then have 90 days to lock in their participation. With the added timeline flexibility announced Thursday, however, Reed said states that are satisfied with the original plan will be able to bypass the first 90 days of back and forth and skip straight into the 90 day opt-in window. That will allow governors to flag their state’s intended participation much sooner, he said.

“We’ve heard from many states that they have a desire to move more quickly than we originally envisioned, and we wanted to build in that flexibility,” Reed said. “If states want to take the full 180 days to review and make the governor’s decision, we’re going to allow that. But for the states who want to move more quickly, we’ve built in additionally flexibility.”

Reed and Sambar declined to discuss what state buy-in is looking like, but the latter said AT&T is “feeling really good about it.”

To accommodate the new timeline option, Reed said FirstNet is working to come up with the most complete state plans possible in the initial release.

One of the issues Sambar said FirstNet and AT&T will have to work through with states is who exactly are considered primary users on the network. Generally speaking, Sambar said primary users include police, fire, and EMS personnel, with other first responders being classified as extended primary users. But Sambar acknowledged some states may want to include other critical personnel in the primary group.

“I will say there are many, many nuances as to who is a first responder in the primary group,” Sambar said. “You can imagine states saying ‘What about the emergency services personnel, or the folks in the PSAPS, or the private security officers in the universities,' all of those folks ... We want to protect the network and the integrity of the network because pre-emption is obviously something that’s sensitive and very important to public safety and we want to make sure that’s protected, but we also want to offer flexibility in our solution.”

Forming state plans

While they wouldn’t go into state-by-state details, Reed and Sambar also provided an overview of what considerations go into the formation of state plans and what types of network tools are being included.

At a high level, Sambar said decisions about whether to build new infrastructure, partner with local carriers, or use deployable equipment are made based on whether or not AT&T has existing relationships with rural carriers in the area. If not, Sambar said AT&T will approach local providers to “see if the relationship makes sense” and whether what they can provide is “sufficient and economically feasible.” Sambar added AT&T also looks at whether a given area needs fixed macro coverage or if deployable coverage will suffice. Another consideration is whether local government entities are interested in sharing infrastructure.

Geography is also a huge factor in formulating the state plans, Sambar explained. In a Great Plains state, a single macro tower will be able to spread coverage to a lot of people, where a mountainous state might require more towers in a smaller area or even deployables in particularly hard-to-reach locations. The latter include AT&T’s cell-on-light-truck (COLT), cell-on-wheels (COW), cell-on-wings (flying COW), backpack systems, and in-vehicle cell solutions. Sambar said DAS systems will also be required for in-building coverage in police and fire headquarters buildings in some states.

Sambar said the final determinations will require lots of back and forth with the states, not just now, but also over the 25-year term of AT&T’s FirstNet contract.

“Every state has unique needs, (but) AT&T has been at this a long time,” Sambar said. “We wouldn’t put a brand like ours behind this if we weren’t committed to getting it right.”

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