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Two former governors and 2016 presidential candidates last week urged their counterparts from across the country to withhold enrolling their states in FirstNet as the initial deadline to make a decision approaches.

Jeb Bush, R-Fla., and Martin O'Malley, D-Md., sharply criticized the first responder network's lack of transparency and accountability, and argued that governors should at least hear alternative bids before deciding whether to go with AT&T, which won the federal contract for FirstNet.

"The only way to determine whether one side is better ... is to create a much more dynamic, competitive environment," Bush said at the annual Competitive Carriers Association Convention in Fort Worth, Texas.

Bush and O'Malley joked to the CCA audience — largely comprised of regional or rural carriers — that their personal smartphones were carried by industry giants AT&T and Verizon, respectively. But both governors also sit on the board of Rivada Networks, a Colorado-based provider that is competing against AT&T in states that opt out of FirstNet.

States face a Dec. 28 deadline to inform federal officials whether they will enroll in FirstNet or opt to take alternate bids, and O'Malley argued that "the smart governors" are issuing requests for proposals from other carriers for a public safety network.

Bush added that states that opt out can still select FirstNet at a later date — but that in a competitive process, they could also ask the questions "that they haven't gotten the answers to because it goes into the black hole of Washington, D.C."

As the governors noted the value of the spectrum dedicated to FirstNet — and its potential economic benefits — CCA President Steve Berry, who moderated the discussion, said that some of his members worried that AT&T would use federal money to build out a network to essentially overwhelm them.

O'Malley suggested that if either he or Bush had issued valuable, public spectrum without a bid during their tenures, "we'd get in big trouble for that."

Both governors particularly criticized the secrecy surrounding FirstNet's processes, and O'Malley suggested that the penalties for opting out violated Congress' intent and potentially the Constitution. The House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology is scheduled to hold a hearing on FirstNet on Wednesday.

"I wouldn't have gotten away with this third-world thuggery that you're seeing from FirstNet," O'Malley said.

The governors also said that the contracts eventually signed by states will need be flexible enough to adjust to technological changes over its 25-year lifespan, as well as strict enough to ensure that the network's infrastructure will hold up when it is most needed. Both noted that threats from large storms and global terrorism aren't going away soon.

"If the infrastructure's down because you didn't negotiate a real commitment ... this is all for naught," Bush said.

FirstNet responded that the network looks forward to working with its 27 — to date — partner states and territories to ensure "the successful and speedy deployment of the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network — opt in or opt out — in the coming months.”

“It’s unfortunate that some feel the need to resort to name-calling instead of having a substantive conversation on the communications needs of our nation's first responders," a FirstNet spokesman said.

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