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Plan for first responder network must now clear Executive Council

State House Bureau
Union Leader Correspondent

December 07. 2017 11:16AM
Gov. Chris Sununu on Thursday morning announced that New Hampshire was opting out of a nationwide first-responders communication network with A T & T and would create its own network with a company known as Rivada. (John Koziol/Union Leader Correspondent)

Gov. Chris Sununu has decided that New Hampshire will go its own way in the creation of a nationwide communications network for first responders, but the five-member Executive Council that will have to approve the final contract is not convinced.

Sununu on Thursday announced that New Hampshire will pursue a contract with a startup communications company known as Rivada, while 33 states and two territories have already opted in to AT&T service for a program known as FirstNet.

New Hampshire is the only state that has so far decided to take its chances with Rivada, rather than opting-in to the federally sanctioned deal with AT&T.

In making the decision to go with Rivada, Sununu is following the recommendation of a 30-member panel that has been studying the project since 2015.

The governor’s announcement was made at the Troop F State Police barracks in Twin Mountain village in the town of Carroll. Troop F serves Coos and Grafton counties — nearly 40 percent of the state’s entire area, most of it rural and pocked with communication “dead spots.”

Sununu said Rivada would also offer greater statewide coverage — 99 versus 87 percent — local control, flexibility and the opportunity for the state to both save and make some money.

The Statewide Interoperability Committee recommended opting out of the AT&T FirstNet program after seeing the costs associated with a New Hampshire hookup to the national system and considering the Rivada alternative.

Rivada presented the state with an option to offset the costs of the network through the sale of surplus broadband capacity that would be created as part of the project.

As the Dec. 28 First Net deadline approaches, Sununu said he expected other states “to follow us.”

But at least three of the five councilors whose approval will be needed took a cautious approach on Thursday, saying essentially, “Show me the money.”

Councilor Russell Prescott, R-Kingston, said he would have to see “rock solid, eye-popping guarantees” to sign off on the contract, given the fact that Sununu has given Rivada great leverage to recruit other states by making a decision in its favor well ahead of a Dec. 28 deadline.

“This has to be a very good PR benefit for Rivada,” said Prescott, “and I want to make sure New Hampshire reaps the benefits of the advantage we’ve given them.”

Confidential documents

Councilor Andru Volinsky, D-Concord, says the council has so far been denied access to information it needs to make a decision.

A five-member panel of senior state officials, including Attorney General Gordon MacDonald, prepared a cost-benefit analysis upon which the governor based his decision, but many of the financial details were deemed confidential or “proprietary” and redacted from the report.

“That’s very concerning,” said Volinsky. “I don’t have a technical background in radio or broadband communication, so I am willing to trust the state’s experts on that, but I do understand financial and regulatory risk and I know the kind of things that should be in those documents that would give me comfort. Since I haven’t seen the attachments I don’t have that comfort.”

A spokesman for Sununu said the confidential information would be made available to the councilors prior to any vote.

It’s unlikely that will change the opinion of North Country Councilor Joe Kenney, a supporter of the AT&T option.

“It’s no surprise that the governor made that announcement. He’s been heading down that path for a while,” said Kenney. “Unfortunately, I think he’s heading down a path of uncertainty. We have a company that has never built a network. It’s a startup company; has no contracts here in New Hampshire or nationally, and I feel that this company is not going to have the horsepower to follow through on the contract, if it passes the Executive Council.”

Rivada partners

Brian Carney, a spokesman for Rivada, says fears about the company’s lack of a track record in constructing broadband networks are overblown, since AT&T does not build cell towers either.

“Our partners and team members on the New Hampshire project have built and do build LTE networks all over the world, and in some cases are the same people who build them for AT&T,” he said. “Whoever builds it, whether it’s us or AT&T in any state, will be using the same contractors and equipment.”

Carney concurred with Councilor Prescott that New Hampshire’s decision will have a positive impact on Rivada’s efforts to convince other states to opt-out of the AT&T plan.

“Since the governor’s announcement, we have had MVNOs (Mobile Virtual Network Operators) and wholesale buyers of network capacity coming to us and saying, when do we sign up,” he said. 

“We are confident that this is the beginning of the opt-out, and we wouldn’t be surprised to see some states that have already signed letters of intent to opt-in change their minds in the next three weeks. So New Hampshire is absolutely leading the country with this. You are not going to be alone.”

AT&T reaction

Chris Sambar, AT&T senior vice president for First Net, urged the state to proceed with caution.

“To date, all other states and territories that have made a decision have chosen to opt in to (AT&T) FirstNet, reflecting a belief across the nation that it is the best option for the public safety community and the residents they serve,” he said. 

“Today, Gov. Sununu has expressed his decision to go down a path not chosen by any of the 35 states and territories before him. We remain hopeful New Hampshire will continue to assess the substantial risks associated with an opt-out proposal of an unproven vendor.”

The debate has divided the state’s law enforcement and emergency response community.

The Rivada option was endorsed by the state Chiefs of Police Association, the Sheriff’s Association, Attorney General Gordon MacDonald and Safety Commissioner John Barthelmes.

Supporters of the AT&T plan include the Professional Firefighters Association and the statewide Business and Industry Association.

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