The District should opt out of FirstNet’s federal approach to public safety broadband

By next week, the D.C. mayor must decide whether to “opt in” to FirstNet’s federal approach to interoperable public safety broadband or “opt out” in search of a better deal.

Opting out is the correct choice. For decades, firefighters and law enforcement have bemoaned the lack of inter-operable communications. Responders from different agencies or jurisdictions can’t communicate during a large event. The 9/11 Commission recommended building a nationwide public safety communications system.

Congress set aside a piece of spectrum — Band 14 — for public safety and established FirstNet to oversee the project. FirstNet selected AT&T as its vendor. The law allows states, tribes, territories and the District to explore other options. They should. Band 14 is extremely valuable. Except during a major disaster, the excess bandwidth will be available for commercial use.

Elected leaders should secure the best deal for their first responders and for local governments, which will pay for the services. There is no downside to opting out. Opting in now is a permanent choice. If a state opts out, it can leverage competitors for the best deal. States would then have until mid-2018 to opt in.

Firefighters, emergency medical services and law enforcement providers, and state and local governments deserve to have the highest-quality, best-value option for their emergency communications. Opting in may be the easiest choice, but it’s the wrong choice.

by Kevin O’Connor, Baltimore

The writer, a retired Baltimore County firefighter, has lobbied extensively on public safety communications issues. He is a columnist and associate editor of Firehouse Magazine.

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