A special state panel looking at the future of public safety communications technology has voted to shop around for vendors before signing on with an agreement between a federal program and AT&T.
The Vermont Public Safety Broadband Commission voted Tuesday to put out a request for proposals from other communications technology companies, a move that preserves the possibility that Vermont could opt out of an agreement inked in March between AT&T and the federal FirstNet program.
States are being asked this year whether they want to join FirstNet and contract with AT&T as the principal vendor for technologies designed to enhance communications between police, fire and other first responders.
The vote came after questions were raised by Vermont public safety officials serving on the commission as to whether AT&T’s network in Vermont was adequate for serving the public safety needs of a rural, sparsely populated state.
The stakes are high. Tens of millions of dollars would be spent during the 25-year rollout of FirstNet in Vermont on communications improvements that officials say could boost cell phone and internet reliability in a state where service is spotty.
Reliable service in an emergency is one of the factors the commission examined as part of the public safety plan.
AT&T said in a statement that it could take up to 14 hours in a disaster to get “deployable” communications technology to remote regions of the state.
“We don’t believe 14 hours is adequate for the state of Vermont and its first responders,” Broadband Commission Chairman Terry LaValley said in an interview Thursday. “We feel we need a much better response time than 14 hours.”
At Tuesday’s Broadband Commission meeting, members expressed concern about the time crunch Vermont faces, particularly if it wants to find another vendor aside from AT&T. The state would need to line up a vendor or team of vendors by mid-December to take on what has been characterized as an extremely complex project. In between now and then, Vermont would have to review the vendors’ geographic coverage areas, the types of technology on offer, terms of service and cost.
Kenneth Jones, an economic research analyst with the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development who is a broadband commission member, said he was pleased with the decision to entertain other bidders.
“It does help to look at the AT&T proposal if you have another proposal,” he said. “You get a sense of what the possibilities are. And it puts a little more incentive on AT&T to strengthen (its) proposal.”
Vermont officials got something of a late start with the decision making process due to officials’ apparent reluctance to sign an agreement with AT&T just to see what the company was offering.