Verizon really doesn’t want AT&T to get a $14 billion spectrum windfall – enough so that Verizon Chairman and CEO Hans Vestberg paid a visit to FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel to talk about it.

The meeting occurred last Friday. Vestberg was accompanied by Verizon Public Policy & Government Affairs SVP Kathy Grillo. Rosenworcel’s chief counsel, Priscilla Delgado Argeris, also attended, according to an ex parte filing with the FCC.

TL;DR version: The FCC is considering how to manage spectrum in the 4.9 GHz band for public safety. Some public safety agencies represented by the Public Safety Spectrum Alliance (PSSA) want the FCC to assign the 4.9 GHz band to the FirstNet Authority, whose network is provided by AT&T. Others, like the Coalition for Emergency Response and Critical Infrastructure (CERCI), disagree with the PSSA proposal. Verizon is a member of CERCI.

AT&T recently spelled out in a 15-page filing how it will not get a “spectrum windfall” if the 4.9 GHz gets assigned to FirstNet Authority, but Verizon apparently doesn’t believe that. Go figure. 

In his meeting with Rosenworcel, Vestberg stated that Verizon, along with “a growing number of law enforcement stakeholders and public safety agencies,” opposes the PSSA’s proposal to “wrest control of the 4.9 GHz band from local public safety agencies and give it to FirstNet and, in turn, AT&T, which would use the band to provide service to public safety and commercial customers.”

He made clear that PSSA’s proposed “spectrum giveaway” would disrupt the competitive marketplace for public safety and commercial wireless use, according to Verizon’s filing.

“Providing AT&T with access to an additional 50 megahertz of mid-band spectrum valued at over $14 billion and available for commercial use would result in a substantial windfall, particularly at a time when the commission and other policymakers are working to develop a pipeline for mid-band spectrum,” Verizon stated.

An AT&T spokesperson pointed to a recent ex parte filing where AT&T addressed the “windfall” claim. AT&T basically said such claims are exaggerated and misrepresent the premise of the PSSA’s proposal.

The FirstNet Authority has a contract with AT&T to maintain and operate the national public safety network on its behalf and AT&T is free to use excess capacity on the network on a secondary basis for commercial services. But the PSSA proposal is not a “grant of 50 megahertz of mid-band spectrum” to AT&T and any suggestion that FirstNet is “nothing more than a branded arm of AT&T is insulting to the public safety community,” according to AT&T.

Before the FirstNet contract was awarded to AT&T, Verizon served the lion’s share of the public safety market in the U.S., but FirstNet now claims to serve 28,000 public safety agencies and supports more than 6 million first responder connections. However, comparing AT&T and Verizon’s share of the public safety market is difficult due to how they each define “first responder.”

Inspector General report 

Complicating matters for FirstNet is a recent U.S. Department of Commerce Office of Inspector General report that found the FirstNet Authority didn’t accurately assess AT&T’s performance in meeting device connection targets in accordance with contracted requirements.

It’s not the first time the Inspector General has published a report critical of FirstNet’s relationship with AT&T. In 2022, auditors called into question FirstNet’s investments and AT&T’s influence in the process. 

In its response to the latest Inspector General’s report, the FirstNet Authority said the Office of Inspector General’s report appeared to “not fully capture the comprehensive scope of our oversight efforts and achievements.”

An AT&T spokesperson said audits and reviews like these are a routine part of government oversight designed to provide independent perspective on federal entities’ operations.

“No other wireless network is subject to this robust level of scrutiny and accountability, and no other wireless network has delivered more for public safety,” AT&T said in its statement provided to Fierce. “As public safety’s network provider, we understand and welcome this oversight, and we look forward to continuing work with the FirstNet Authority and the public safety community as we grow and evolve the network to strengthen first responders’ communications.”

Both CERCI/Verizon and PSSA/AT&T claim broad support from the public safety community. The National Sheriffs’ Association,  major transportation agencies and cities like Boston don’t want to cede control of the 4.9 GHz band to FirstNet. The International Association of Fire Chiefs and Fraternal Order of Police are among those that support the PSSA proposal to have FirstNet manage the band.

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