Business & Economy

Document: Opting out of national telecom plan could cost Vermont millions

A confidential draft memo circulating among state officials as Vermont prepares to decide whether to join a national public safety communications project is being likened by one member of a state review panel to a mafia protection racket.

“I grew up in New Jersey,” said Ron Kumetz, a representative of volunteer firefighters to the Vermont Public Safety Broadband Commission. “There were certain family-owned businesses that would send around a ‘health adviser,’ who would say, ‘If you decide to do business with us, it will be healthy for you, and if you refuse … it will be unhealthy for you.’”

Phil Scott
Gov. Phil Scott. File photo by Bob LoCicero/VTDigger
The commission is due to make a recommendation to Gov. Phil Scott by November whether to opt into a plan by the federal FirstNet program to contract with telecom giant AT&T for public safety communications. The state could also choose to hire its own vendor, using up to $25 million in federal grant money.

At stake is a 25-year contract expected to be worth tens of millions of dollars to whatever vendor gets the work, as well as use of a valuable piece of the telecommunications broadcast spectrum.

Some close to the decision process have been advocating for the state to opt out of the deal between the U.S. Department of Commerce-affiliated FirstNet program and AT&T, saying AT&T’s cellular network in Vermont is not as robust as Verizon’s and that a national program might not offer services tailored to Vermont’s needs.

The main goal of the program is to enhance communications among first responders and their agencies; police, fire and emergency medical services would have priority use of the system. But the fact that the system could be put to commercial use when emergencies aren’t happening means that others who merely want to improve Vermont’s cellular and broadband networks also have been watching FirstNet’s development as much as they can.

VTDigger has obtained a “confidential draft” memo, also marked “pre-decisional and deliberative FirstNet information,” not subject to the federal Freedom of Information Act. The document indicates that the path for a state wishing to opt out and hire its own vendor is potentially onerous. The memo came from a source other than Kumetz.

If the state opts out, says the memo on FirstNet letterhead, it would have to put its “full faith and credit” behind the notion that it could find an alternative vendor that could meet the exacting standards set by the national FirstNet program. Failure to carry out the program could result in penalties against the state of up to $173 million, the memo says.

The memo also appears to reinforce another theme of criticism directed by some Vermont officials at the way the FirstNet program has developed: an imbalance of power and information sharing between state officials and FirstNet. One complaint voiced by Kumetz and others is that they aren’t being allowed to see the contract between FirstNet and AT&T so they can make a thorough assessment of what they would be buying into.

In contrast, FirstNet would have full access to the state’s books if it opts out and selects another vendor, the confidential memo says. “FirstNet may audit and inspect State’s books, records and other information, and materials, to monitor and ensure compliance of the State’s obligations” to meet public safety communication goals, it says.

The memo lays out technical details that also appear to minimize any effort a state might make to set up an independent network and says FirstNet can step in at any time to take over the state program — at state cost — if it is deemed to be coming up short of goals including “interoperability” with the national network.

A section labeled “technology refresh,” says, “From time to time, FirstNet may require that the State refresh the equipment and technology” of the state network “at the state’s sole cost in order to maintain interoperability” with the national network.

Neither Terry LaValley, chairman of the Vermont Public Safety Broadband Commission, nor FirstNet spokesman Ryan Oremland immediately returned calls seeking comment on the memo Thursday.

The Energy and Technology Committee of the Vermont House has set a meeting for 9 a.m. Friday at the Statehouse to discuss FirstNet developments.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the maximum penalties the state could face: The maximum would be $173 million.

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