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Alaska signs on to public safety broadband network unrolling nationwide

A massive telecom project intended to connect emergency workers and law enforcement across every state and territory on a unified broadband system is coming to Alaska.

Alaska already has a public safety communications system in place that allows police, firefighters and medical personnel to get on the same channel and talk to one another on walkie-talkie-like devices with the turn of a dial and the push of a button.

But the new network, called "FirstNet," will use broadband technology to go beyond voice-only connections. Wildland firefighters will be able to send and receive photos and real-time maps of a fast-moving blaze. A police officer might receive the audio recording of a 911 call or floor plans of the building where a crime is taking place.

In a crisis, the system will boot from the network anyone who isn't a first responder, giving emergency personnel first dibs on the ability to send and receive calls and data as a calamity runs its course.

Gov. Bill Walker opted in to the system in August, making him one of 20 state and territorial governors who have said yes to FirstNet. Had Walker opted out, federal law would have required Alaska to somehow build and pay for its own network that would be compatible with a national system.

The governor's action opened the door for AT&T to start work on FirstNet in Alaska, with all construction, operating and maintenance costs borne by the company and federal government. Earlier this year, AT&T received a 25-year contract for the project. The award came through the U.S. Department of Commerce's First Responders Network Authority, or FirstNet, an independent agency specifically set up to plan and build the system.

In addition to about $6.5 billion from the federal government, AT&T received 20 megahertz of radio spectrum, worth billions of dollars and which is so desirable that it's known in the industry as "beachfront." The company will use the spectrum to give priority to FirstNet customers, preventing them from having to compete with commercial users during an emergency. AT&T can use the spectrum for commercial operations whenever public safety officials and workers aren't using it.

AT&T has also committed to spend $40 billion on the system.

The actual agreement between the FirstNet authority and AT&T is confidential; not even the states are allowed to see it, according to an attorney representing states in the FirstNet negotiations. When asked for copies of AT&T's FirstNet contract and plans for FirstNet in Alaska, state and federal officials involved in the project said they could not provide them.

"We can't share the state plans because there is a lot of security-related information included: where cell sites are placed and where coverage will be built out over the next five years," Chrissie Coons, a spokeswoman for FirstNet in Washington, D.C., told Alaska Dispatch News.

Alaska won't have to build or operate the system, but any federal, state or local agencies here will have to pay to subscribe to the service and for new devices that will support it. When asked about pricing by state officials and Alaska Dispatch News, AT&T has been indirect.

"It's up to each public safety entity to choose whether to subscribe to these services, which will be available at competitive prices," said Chris Sambar, a senior vice president at AT&T.

State officials emphasize that indeed the choice of whether or not to subscribe will be up to individual agencies.

"If they're not competitive, they won't have agencies migrating over to their system," said Gerad Godfrey, the governor's senior adviser of rural business and intergovernmental affairs. "It's on AT&T to make this a competitive product. And it's entirely possible no one comes over."

The state has an existing communications system used by 22,500 federal, state and local first responders and other public safety workers, including drivers of buses and snowplows. The voice-only system is called Alaska Land Mobile Radio, and won't be phased out anytime soon. Instead, it will be used in conjunction with FirstNet, which state 911 coordinator John Rockwell expects will be rolled out gradually starting this year.

The state of Alaska owns, maintains and contracts with the mobile radio system. Most communication on the network is done on Motorola devices, which are not configured for broadband. Rockwell said two devices — one compatible with the state's existing network and the other with FirstNet — might be the norm for some time.

FirstNet is a response to the communications tragedies that unfolded during the 9/11 attacks. In New York, first responders from all over the region arriving at the World Trade Center found they couldn't talk to one another because so many cellphone calls were occurring at once and they were on separate, incompatible radio systems. Some firefighters on the higher floors of the North Tower never got the message to evacuate before it collapsed.

According to Rockwell, the network will eventually cover about 90 percent of the state's population and 9 percent of its geography. It's unclear to what extent coverage will extend offshore, where emergencies related to fishing and shipping, including the transport of oil, have occurred.

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