AT&T FirstNet (The Stasi Information Super Highway?)

A review of the privatization of communications by public entities, like the police and fire service, via the unnecessary use of AT&Ts questionable FirstNet service.

A review of the privatization of communications by public entities, like the police and fire service, via the unnecessary use of AT&Ts questionable FirstNet service.

• Topics: Bellingham,

In the wake of the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks an understandably angry, grief stricken, nation would rush to try and figure out what went wrong. Predatory people and companies would also be waiting in the wings to take advantage of our sorrow. Among many issues, we would realize that the communications systems we used for our emergency services were inadequate and dangerously non-standardized. What we expected to happen was a large public effort to build a public, standardized, network that would benefit everyone and be dedicated to first responders. What we would get instead 17 years later would be the most corrupt FCC in history virtually forcing states to use a private system constructed by the anti-net neutral, anti-first amendment company AT&T. This system would not only be over-priced, but would come with some truly Orwellian capabilities. In short, did we need a new standardized system, yes. Did we need to undermine our democracy and values to get it. No. Yet that’s what we’re doing.

There is no doubt that the cell phone is one of the top safety devices you should have. It has saved countless lives long before 5G was ever mentioned. In fact, FirstNet operates on a reserved bandwidth of 700 MHz, well below the 24 GHz and up spectrum suggested for 5G. This is largely because of public regulations requiring that 911 be a free service that anyone can use on any phone regardless of whether they even have a provider linked to the phone or not. The 911 calls are already understandably prioritized. Even during the days of net-neutrality, virtually no one was against this. The 911 calls should also be able to be made consistently on the widest range of equipment. In a broader scope, emergency frequencies were always reserved for the public good before private providers got a crack at them. This was, and remains, a very good idea.

Expanding coverage in an intelligent way makes sense from a safety standpoint. Giving our first responders the best means of communications also makes a lot of sense. No, this does not by default mean 5G and small cells. Please see my previous article about how 5G actually works. It does mean a reliable standardization of services nationwide and reserving bandwidth for use by emergency services.

So why am I not on board with the AT&T FirstNet service? Well, because while it claims to address all of these issues, it actually defeats this purpose by being a private monopoly. In essence, it takes public services that should be public and makes them unnecessarily private and non-transparent. This privatization has nothing to do with safety. It has to do with trying to force the nation to use a single provider for a critical service that should have been built and maintained publicly.

How does AT&T FirstNet threaten our democracy? Let’s start with a reminder that a private unregulated monopoly is never good and that FirstNet was created by a terrified nation that signed off on all kinds of things they should have thought twice about in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy, including the Patriot Act. The monopoly that will control this service is an anti-net neutral, anti-first amendment mega-corp called AT&T. This is the last company our public servants should partner with on principle alone. Why? Let me take you on a brief trip through history to East Germany and a group of individuals that took policing too far, known as the Stasi.

The Stasi were a particularly brutal police force in East Germany that secretly kept records on virtually every citizen, like our government is doing now. They got away with it because their populace largely didn’t know it was going on, were terrified of them, and because they hid their records. All of this will become very relevant in relation to FirstNet as the article continues.

Let’s start by getting past the marketing BS that AT&T uses to cover up their true intentions of being the monopoly provider of a service that should be public since it involves public entities. Notice how the FirstNet site only shows in very small letters their affiliation with one of the most hated companies in American history, AT&T. This is a marketing concept called re-branding. They want you to forget how they, against the will of 87 percent of all Americans, attacked your first amendment rights with the help of the most corrupt FCC in American history by removing net-neutrality so they could keep charging you the highest rates for broadband in the developed world. In fact, they hope that in years to come you will forget that FirstNet is not really a public service at all.

Their statement reads:

“The FirstNet mission is to deploy, operate, maintain, and improve the first high-speed, nationwide wireless broadband network dedicated to public safety. This reliable, highly secure, interoperable, and innovative public safety communications platform will bring 21st century tools to public safety agencies and first responders, allowing them to get more information quickly and helping them to make faster and better decisions.”

On its face this sounds like a pretty benign statement. That’s probably because it largely doesn’t really say anything of substance. Networks, by nature, are interoperable and require people to deploy, operate and maintain them for them to work. We all wan them to be high-speed and reliable. So this statement is the worst kind of marketing BS. Of course we need to bring people in the developed world, especially our first responders, better technology. It’s literally most of what I write about here. Virtually everything AT&T advertises here can be done on any system and done better with an Open Source model, so that people can share ideas and create truly secure, inter-operable, scalable tools. In fact, the Open Source model has proven to be a way more effective security model than private models for security. Of course we want our first responders to have the best tools. That’s why we have always made exceptions for reserving spectrum and bandwidth for critical public services. A private entity does not need to be involved for that. In fact, they’re not. Ultimately the FCC chooses how spectrum is licensed and reserved.

Private entities have always stood in the way of allowing the free flow of information by inefficiently using our available bandwidth, often intentionally, to spite their competitors and keep your rates high. This, of course, means that there is less bandwidth to use for everything including emergency services and calls. Most recently this climaxed with the FCC net-neutrality repeal, but it has always been true. They are saying this has to be done so that First Responders nationwide will have one system to reliably communicate with each other, but that starts with an Open Source model and publicly licensed and reserved bandwidth which the FCC can ultimately license without the need of private industry involvement. This is yet another public resource we are giving away to a big-telecom for no good reason. We can do it better, and cheaper, as a public system. Remember, the Internet at its core was created by a public entity (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and called DARPA Net.

There are some parts of the statement that are very concerning. Notice the part where they say, highly secure. What they mean here is encryption. Basically this is a digital set of keys that are used to secure transmissions. While this might sound good, since it will help communications from being hacked, I want you to stop and think about what this means here. This means that communications sent via this private network can only truly be unlocked by the owners of the keys. In this case that will not be the public; it will be AT&T.

Most communications that go to our public servants should not be encrypted or blocked in any way. There are many good reasons for this. The most paramount one is that the public benefits greatly from open communications with their public institutions. Trust in your public servants is the most important tool that they can have to keeping your community safe. Communities that have information to work with, and trust their police officers, will share information with them and know what to watch out for. FirstNet advertises services that undermine this basic trust between law enforcement and their citizens by offering enhanced surveillance services.

While I’m sure most departments will swear that they will remain transparent, just think about how much trouble we have just getting information from our Public Works department. They usually simply never reply to requests from the public. Now imagine having to do that for communications with your police and fire departments. In short, if this happens in the proposed AT&T way, we will never be sure if we’re receiving the communications from our officials as we do now. AT&T will hold the keys and the default will be to come up with an excuse not to release information, if you get a response at all. Requesting information will probably be added to your Stasi citizens’ file. Will requesting it often enough get your folder flagged as a troublemaker? Well, you’ll never know because you probably won’t be allowed to see it, will be told it doesn’t exist, etc.

I’m so old school that I also think a component of having safe communities starts with giving our brave men and women in uniform excellent pay, benefits, and hours instead of a Stasi style network. One community in America has resisted AT&T FirstNet. Still, communities that are opting to create their own networks must make them work with FIrstNet or face steep FCC fines. FirstNet subscribers will “enjoy” the high rates of $60 per month for their smart phone plans, most of which will be picked up by tax payers. This is part of the reason that New Hampshire decided to look into other options.

FirstNet is largely a way for the current corrupt FCC to force us to pay AT&T for a service we should have built publicly and transparently.

We pay the highest rates for data per MBit in the developed world, as I’ve written about many times before. So FirstNet is largely a way for the current corrupt FCC to force us to pay AT&T for a service we should have built publicly and transparently. A real First Responders network should be run at cost, backed up by publicly-owned resources like publicly-owned fiber-optics, and all of the communications should be available to the public. After all, if your police or fire personnel are responding to a situation you have a right to know about it.

FirstNet was said to have been constructed in response to the horrific events of September 11th. While it is true that many, including First Responders, could not communicate after those events, there were many reasons that led to this, including huge infrastructure problems and a lack of standardized radio equipment. Not the least of these problems was an over-reliance on big-telecom towers that were not served by enough fiber for backhaul when just about everyone understandably started trying to use the poorly-built network. Guess who made the network so awful. That’s right, the big-telecoms that were charging you the highest prices for service in the developed world. They always do the least at the highest price. Why will FirstNet be any different? The answer is that it won’t. The only way to make sure a real First Responder system isn’t totally half-assed is to build it as a public system that is not affected by the profit motive.

Another, often over-looked problem, was a lack of peer-to-peer communications technology and Wi-Fi/Internet calling technology that could have bypassed normal cellular communications routes. This is an inexpensive technology that should be standard on all cell phones in the United States. The more devices that can use peer-to-peer networking, a technology championed in MESH networks, the more reliable. FirstNet will require special FirstNet devices instead of inexpensive devices with this ability. Allowing peer-to-peer communications, and Wi-Fi calling, would reduce the need for cell towers and other devices like small cells. In short, even though it would be better and safer for the public, the big telecoms can’t charge for it so they won’t allow it.

we know that the TSA, NSA, FBI, CIA, and virtually every government agency you can think of are spying on average Americans.

This is also all happening at a time when we know that the TSA, NSA, FBI, CIA, and virtually every government agency you can think of are spying on average Americans. Expect the aforementioned, encrypted, communications to end up being stored in a modern Stasi-style digital vault. Like the former East Germans, be ready to only really know how big the stacks of records they’ve been keeping on average citizens are when the empire collapses.

So do we need something like FirstNet? Yes, but it needs to be public, standardized, built on Open Source and the communications need to be transparent. You know, like the police scanner has been in the past. We should not be handing over monopoly control of such a critical resource to a company like AT&T that has a track record of building poor infrastructure, over-charging us for use of our services, and attacking our first amendment rights. So yes, let’s build a better system for our brave first responders, but let’s do it in a way that is better and preserves our values as Americans.

Contact your State, Federal and Local officials. Tell them that we need to give our First Responders what they need, but also tell them that you expect a better network to be built as a public resource and managed publicly. Above all, the communications on this network need to be transparently and immediately provided to the citizens like the current scanner feed we currently have. Also, divest from AT&T. Any company that will attack our core values one month and use our First Responders as a way to steal from a grieving population doesn’t deserve to run this, or any, network for the bravest among us.

I will follow-up to this article by trying to meet with our local police and fire departments for interviews.

About Jon Humphrey

Citizen Journalist • Bellingham • Member since May 23, 2017

Jon Humphrey is currently a music educator in Bellingham and very active in the community. He also has decades of professional IT experience including everything from support to development. He [...]

Comments by Readers

Dick Conoboy

Aug 04, 2018

We continue to press forward foolishly in the privatization of the public sphere in areas such as banking, affordable housing, policing, intelligence and the military.    This is again of an example of auctioning off what are inherently governmental functions with the attendant loss of control,  managerially, physically and financially.

I helped stopped the move of our own police department several years ago to buy software that claimed to be able to give a threat report about any address to which police were responding.  Based upon a proprietary altgorithm, the police had no idea what was feeding the assessment or the realibility of the data thereby being manipulated. 

I wrote back in July 2014 in an article entitled Intrado not to Intrude in Bellingham:

“Those commenting [on the acquisistion] also had grave reservations over the implications of a private company engaging in what is essentially police work. The algorithms its software uses for arriving at threat assessments is proprietary. No studies appear to be available that attest to the overall utility of the system although the police department provided some anecdotal evidence of the system’s assistance during several incidents. Again, there were no reports of incidents where the police may have been misled by the software. The lack of information and the secrecy around the product served to give the council pause.

Many people complimented our police force for generally being a good one. They also opined that the acquisition of this threat warning system would irrevocably harm any trust the public now has with the police. Intrado itself came in for much criticism as it appears that the Intrado-Beware is a recent, notably unproven extension to its rather generalized service across the U.S. in providing 911 services to communities. [Note: Intrado, along with Century Link, was involved in the April 911 outage in Washington state during which 4,500 emergency calls went unanswered.]”

Bravo on an excellent article.


David Camp

Aug 05, 2018

@Jon- excellent article - about the neo-Liberal ideology of converting public goods to private profit. Fortunately, we are not nearly so far down this path as the UK, where such public goods as water supplies and British Rail were privatized in an orgy of Thatcherism. The results have been generally dismal - I’d argue that the downstream effects of privatisation were a major contributing factor to the Brexit vote, however little EU membership caused privatisation. Water bills for most Britons have increased at more than twice the rate of inflation for many years (although so have ours here in Bham, not due to privatisation except the privatisation and development of our water supply,  but that;s another story), and recently, the privatised Northern Rail in a massive cost-savings exercise caused ongoing chaos essentially making rail service on major commuting routes in northern England unreliable and unusable.

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