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Sununu flipflops on FirstNet, goes with AT&T

State House Bureau

December 28. 2017 3:29PM
Gov. Chris Sununu announces his intention to opt out of FirstNet earlier this month in Twin Mountain. (John Koziol/Union Leader Correspondent)

CONCORD — Gov. Chris Sununu has decided to go with AT&T and its nationwide emergency responder network known as FirstNet, reversing an earlier decision to pursue a contract with upstart communication company Rivada.

On the Dec. 28 deadline for making a decision, with no other states deciding to opt out of the federally endorsed AT&T program, Sununu decided New Hampshire could not afford to go it alone.

“The additional risk associated with being the only state to opt out creates too high a barrier for New Hampshire to continue down the opt-out path,” he said.

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-stake 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 possible benefits of the Rivada contract.

But Sununu came under intense pressure from business groups, first responders and communications workers unions, all of whom questioned the wisdom of taking a chance on Rivada.

Members of the Executive Council, which would have to approve a Rivada contract, were either on the fence or in outright opposition.

Sununu said New Hampshire led the country during the FirstNet evaluation process, and concluded that the Rivada plan would provide better coverage, more control by the state and an opportunity to make money on the expanded broadband spectrum.

But he could not convince other states to join in.

“We proceeded to have extensive discussions with other governors across the country to help them understand the benefits of such a system,” Sununu said. “Many of these states had previously expressed serious interest in pursuing an independent opt-out path. While we were successful in working with FirstNet to remove the unreasonable fees and penalties, the decision deadline of December 28th approached too quickly for these other states to feel confident in an opt-out decision. As a result, it now appears likely that no other states will opt out.”

Sununu said he still believes the Rivada plan is the better option for New Hampshire, but determined the risks are too great.

By moving to opt in at the deadline, New Hampshire will retain AT&T’s commitment to build 48 new tower sites across the state — an opportunity that may have been lost had the state held out beyond Dec. 28.

“These new sites will lead to a top quality public safety network for our first responders and enhanced coverage for all of our citizens,” said Sununu. “I look forward to working with AT&T as they begin the build-out and deployment of their New Hampshire plan.”

Safety Commissioner John Barthelmes and State Interoperability Coordinator John Stevens, who headed up the 30-member review committee, had endorsed the Rivada option but on Thursday expressed confidence that Sununu made the right decision.

“It is unfortunate that the federal government did not provide states with sufficient clarity in time for most states to adequately evaluate their options,” said Barthelmes. “Because New Hampshire started early and conducted a thorough evaluation of both paths, we were presented with a strong opt-out plan that strengthened the state’s negotiating position.”

Stevens said New Hampshire negotiated hard on behalf of its first responders, and thanks to its work with Rivada ultimately obtained one of the best AT&T opt-in plans in the country.

“While we are disappointed that the regulatory and financial hurdles for opt-out ultimately proved too high, we are pleased that the state’s vigorous pursuit of the opt-out path left us in a stronger position than any other state,” he said.

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