The Federal Communications Commission last week approved guidelines it will use to evaluate network proposals for states that want to opt out of FirstNet, the wireless broadband public safety network that AT&T is developing. AT&T was awarded the $6.5 billion contract earlier this year.

According to The Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, the law that created FirstNet, any state-built portions of the network must be interoperable with the AT&T-built network. The guidelines, reached in a unanimous decision by the FCC’s three commissioners, help ensure that will happen. Many states have already expressed interest in opting out of AT&T’s network. So far, Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin have all issued RFPs (requests for proposal) for opt-out plans.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. (Photo:

“Today, the Commission takes a significant step forward in carrying out its responsibilities to help the First Responder Network Authority, or FirstNet, establish a nationwide, interoperable public safety broadband network,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement reacting to the decision. “We establish procedures and timelines governing a state’s decision to opt out of FirstNet’s radio access network, or RAN, and to construct, maintain, and operate a RAN on its own initiative. We also lay out the criteria for evaluating, and ultimately approving or disapproving, any alternative plans from states that elect to opt-out.”

The ruling lays out the timeline for states to provide notification of their opt-out decisions and file plans
with the FCC; the information states should include in their plans to demonstrate interoperability with FirstNet’s network; the technical criteria the FCC will use to evaluate state plans; the FCC’s review process; and the FCC’s process for documenting its decisions on state plans.

“Today’s decision is intended to provide states with a fair and meaningful opportunity to pursue their own network plans without causing undue delay and while still ensuring the integrity of the nationwide network,” a commission statement said.

Earlier this month, individual network plans for states and territories were released by FirstNet and AT&T. This triggered a 90-day period where FirstNet, AT&T, and state governments can work together to refine the individual plans. During the 90-day period, states can opt into the FirstNet network whenever they are satisfied with their plan. After the 90-day period states will have another 90 days to make a formal opt-in/opt-out decision. That means final decisions won’t be known until mid-December.

“FirstNet’s success depends on there being [true] interoperability across this nation,” said Commissioner Mignon Clyburn during the meeting. “The decision whether to opt in or not is a momentous one that no governor, or any of us, will take lightly.”

While the FCC decision did provide significant guidance to states, it left one issue open: whether states that choose to opt out must use FirstNet’s core network. According to the commission, both Alabama and Colorado had requested guidance on the issue.

The FCC said that it finds “this issue to be outside the scope of our statutory review responsibility and we decline to consider it further. Accordingly, although we will not reject an otherwise qualified alternative plan that includes a proposed state core, we will limit our review solely to the interoperability of the state RAN with the FirstNet network as directed by the Act and will not examine possible RAN interconnection with non-FirstNet networks or cores.”

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk's Assistant Copy & Production Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.