This week was the first opportunity for AT&T and FirstNet to jointly meet before the Senate Commerce Committee’s communications subcommittee to share with interested members the progress of the public safety network now that AT&T has been awarded the contract and pieces are starting to fall into place. We have been following all of this activity very closely for a number of reasons…first, public safety is important in rural America as well and our communities remain hopeful that they will not be overlooked in creating nation-wide access to resources and support but second, to ensure that FirstNet and AT&T live up to the provision that we fought hard for to ensure that they utilize existing rural resources in rural markets – and certainly not overbuild and compete with entities that are supported by RUS loans and USF support with the $7 billion of government support for the FirstNet network. That would be terribly inefficient and poor judgement to have government resources compete against government resources.
I was reassured by the questioning of the committee that they are at least very focused on rural deployment as well. Mike Poth, the FN CEO did note that it will be FirstNet’s responsibility to hold AT&T accountable for delivering on the terms of its contracts, which includes rural components in each year of the five-year initial construction period. While it was noted that AT&T will always have 72 pieces of deployable equipment dedicated to the FN system to fill in where coverage is not available or to increase capacity during emergencies, they also shared that “rural coverage is a concern.” That is exactly why we took the opportunity to sit down with the AT&T folks recently, with our partners at INDATEL and some of their member fiber networks, to share the capacity and assets that NTCA members have and to really implore the AT&T team, as they craft out their networks and planned builds, to use as much of existing rural provider networks as possible. Our concerns and proactive approach seems to jive with what policymakers are looking for as well so NTCA remains committed to tracking the activity on all fronts – from the FirstNet piece to the AT&T builds. More to follow for sure….