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Dave Solomon's State House Dome: Granite State at center of FirstNet controversy

November 11. 2017 10:57PM

An ambitious plan to create an integrated and secure communications network for first responders across the 50 states has put the national spotlight on New Hampshire.

The Granite State could become the first state to officially opt out of FirstNet - a program that has been in the works since just after 9/11.

The inability of police and fire departments to communicate with each other over incompatible radio systems on 9/11 set the FirstNet process in motion. Even though advances in digital technology have addressed some of the issues, the project moves forward.

It's no coincidence that full-page color ads have been running in the New Hampshire Union Leader, promoting FirstNet as "the best possible communication system for the worst possible scenario." Billions of dollars are at stake, and if New Hampshire becomes the first state to successfully opt out, the floodgates could open.

"We will be the decision-makers to see if opting out becomes viable for the rest of the country," Gov. Chris Sununu told members of the Executive Council at their pre-meeting breakfast on Wednesday. "We are the tip of the spear."

The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) is an agency of the Department of Commerce created by Congress in 2012. It has a mandate to create a nationwide emergency communication system using a chunk of high-value broadcast spectrum the FCC reserved for FirstNet after acquiring it from broadcasters in a series of high-stakes auctions.

Sununu on Oct. 16 issued an executive order creating a committee to review the regulatory and financial risks associated with an opt-out plan.

That order came a little more than a week after the Statewide Interoperability Committee, a 30-member panel studying the project since 2015, recommended opting out after seeing the costs associated with a New Hampshire hook-up to the national system.

States that opt out have to come up with an option of their own that will still integrate with a system that so far 28 other states have signed up for.

In New Hampshire's case, that would mean creating our own network with a company called Rivada, with offices in the U.S. and Ireland. Rivada was among the unsuccessful bidders that pursued the FirstNet contract to build the network, which ultimately went to AT&T.

Rivada hopes to convince state officials that it can build an "interoperable" emergency responder system in New Hampshire with a portion of the broadcast spectrum, and allow the state to make money by selling some of the remaining space to private companies.

Things were moving comfortably in that direction until a few weeks ago, when FirstNet announced that there would be consequences for states that go their own way.

States whose opt-out decisions have to be reversed or otherwise create integration problems will be facing stiff fines - as much as $15 billion for California within the first three years, $608 million in New Hampshire, according to Attorney General Gordon MacDonald.

Sununu is not happy with what he says are strong-arm tactics.

"It's clear these penalties were set up to discourage states from opting out, even though it is allowed by the federal government," he said. "It's very unfair. Even though it may be the best choice for us, we are not able to make that choice without insane risks. The amount of risk they are asking us to take is completely unreasonable."

MacDonald, who serves on the opt-out committee, described the fees as a "relatively new development, in the last three weeks."

"The legal basis for the fees is something we are looking at, and whether or not they can be negotiated," he said. "The (fee) schedule goes out for 25 years. How do you bond against that?"

To further complicate matters, there are rumblings in the state's community of first responders over the wisdom of involving the state with Rivada, a communication technology company that was founded in 2004.

New Hampshire has a tentative contract with Rivada, pending a final decision on whether to opt out, which is due by Dec. 28. The opt-out review committee has until Nov. 21 to report back to the governor, with instructions from Sununu to dig deep into the financial and technical capabilities of the company.

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