National Cell Network For First Responders Could Mean Better Coverage For Vermonters

Jul 14, 2017

An effort to build a national cell data network for first responders is likely to bring the added benefit of better cell phone coverage for all Vermonters. But some say the state could be doing more to get the most out of FirstNet.

When a 911 call comes into an emergency dispatch center responders get called out via pagers and two-way radios. But most of those emergency responders — just like the rest of us — are walking around with more advanced technology in their pockets.

While a firefighter may not be able to communicate with dispatch and an entire crew simultaneously via cell phone (at least not yet,) it could be useful in other ways, such as finding people in a smoke-filled building, as Vermont's Director of Radio Technology Services Terry LaValley explains.

"What if I provided you, through an electronic device, a map of where everybody is in the building?" he asks. "So now you’re responding to a fire … The building’s still full of smoke, but you looked at a device and said oh, they’re here or they’re here."

LaValley says there are all kinds of useful data dispatchers can provide to responders on the scene — if they had the right tools and a reliable network. And that’s what FirstNet is designed to be.

FirstNet is short for First Responder Network. The First Responder Network Authority is the federal agency tasked with putting a nationwide data network in place for first responders.

Dispatch Supervisor Fred Cummings sits at his workstation at Capital West Dispatch, in Montpelier.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

LaValley is the point person between the state and the federal FirstNet Authority. He’s working with the state Public Safety Broadband Network Commission on implementing FirstNet in Vermont.

Vermont is looking to FirstNet to fill holes in the state’s cell coverage and harden the network so it works even when power and other infrastructure are down. The network will also give first responders priority access to the cell phone bandwidth during emergencies.

The FirstNet Authority has struck a $6.5 billion deal with AT&T to establish a nationwide network. Now it’s up to individual states and territories to either opt into or out of a 25-year contract with AT&T.

On June 19, each individual state and territory was given access to an online portal that outlined a draft plan for that specific state. And that started a 45-day clock.

That’s the amount of time Vermont’s Public Safety Broadband Network Commission has to read its state plan, suggest changes, and make a recommendation to the Governor to either opt in or out of the AT&T plan. After that, the governor has 90 days to make a decision. If Vermont opts out, it can put the job of building its own in-state network out to bid.

However, the ‘terms of use’ of the AT&T state plan portals are so complex and restrictive, it took the states’ lawyers a couple of weeks to come up with an addendum that would simply allow Vermont employees and commission members to click the box to accept the terms of use.

"We had to make sure that the terms and conditions did not violate any state law," LaValley explains. "...They worked through that and just last week we got the approval and go ahead to click on the box."

That’s been a problem for other states as well. Basically, while the state governments need to be as transparent as possible, AT&T is more concerned about protecting proprietary information.

"We haven't had an opportunity to play a role in negotiating that deal, so we don't entirely know what it is." — Public Safety Broadband Network Commissioner Ron Kumetz

In addition, Vermont can’t see what the other states are being offered. And it isn't privy to details of the federal deal, such as what the penalties are if AT&T doesn't deliver as promised. And all that doesn’t sit well with at least one commissioner.

"FirstNet has negotiated a deal that, first of all it’s super-secret so we don’t know all the details of it," says Kumetz. "And second of all, we haven’t had an opportunity to play a role in negotiating that deal, so we don’t entirely know what it is."

Kumetz is assistant fire chief in Alburg and he sits on the Public Safety Broadband Network Commission as a representative of the Vermont State Firefighters Association. The association has been publicly encouraging the state to opt-out of the AT&T plan, and see what other bidders might have to offer.

"If you built a house, would you just get an estimate from one builder?" he asks. "Or would you get, you know, two or three of them to compare to and say, 'That guy over there, he’s going to give us the best house for the money.'"

Thus far, Virginia and Wyoming have opted in to the AT&T FirstNet plan.