When FirstNet was first announced, it offered much promise but there were also many questions about whether and how it would reach rural America. As NTCA members know all too well, it’s a unique challenge to make the business case for infrastructure investment and ongoing network operations in areas where population densities may be only few people per square mile (or even less).
The efforts to get FirstNet up and running tried to tackle a few of these questions, at least creating some “bounds” to help ensure FirstNet efforts were directed in the right ways to the right places. For example, the law recognizes that limited resources can go further – and that networks can be built much faster – by leveraging existing infrastructure to the “maximum extent economically desirable” and looking to partnerships with existing mobile wireless operators. Such measures make good sense particularly in rural America, where many of the “markets” can’t even justify the construction and operation of a single network without outside support or subsidy. In addition, when issuing its Request for Proposal, FirstNet underscored the importance of rural coverage by requiring bidders to ensure 15% of nationwide coverage would include “partnerships with rural telecommunications providers.” Finally, FirstNet’s RFP put milestones in place to help ensure rural coverage expansion was being achieved all along the way, rather than being left to the end.
Unfortunately, it has been hard to tell how much progress is being made toward rural coverage, how well FirstNet and AT&T are leveraging existing providers, and to what degree AT&T is actually using rural partners in the project. AT&T has indicated it is actually aiming for greater than 15% of coverage to be achieved through rural partnerships, but there doesn’t seem to be any public listing of who those partners are or even a general sense of where those partners will actually help provide coverage. There also doesn’t seem to be any public accounting of the extent to which FirstNet might be overbuilding existing infrastructure to determine whether it is in fact leveraging existing networks to the “maximum extent economically desirable” as required by the law that created it.
And most significantly, AT&T apparently stated recently that “95% of the American population will be covered by” the FirstNet network. That sounds great . . . but that’s not a “nationwide” public safety broadband network. NTCA members serve many of the rural areas that likely fall within that other 5%, and as anyone who lives or has traveled in rural America knows, a potentially bigger public safety concern arises in the places where people don’t live –the federal lands, national parks, national forests, and other rural areas that people visit or travel through where “No Service” is often the rule rather than the exception on a cell phone. It’s not clear which of those areas will be left out of FirstNet.
This isn’t to say that FirstNet and AT&T aren’t making great progress toward an important and tremendous undertaking. But when we hear that 95% of the population will be covered by a “nationwide” network, and when we have no good sense of the real extent of rural partnerships and no idea at all whether there’s compliance with the requirements to leverage existing networks, it’s time for a real, public status check to see if the goals of rural coverage are being achieved in the right ways.