FirstNet: Pennywise and trust foolish?

editor's corner

The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) has money issues and trust issues. While it's watching dollars and cents, the agency would be wise to also focus on how its actions impact public confidence as it carries out its mission.

The money issues should not be a shock, given the limited funding granted to the agency charged with building the LTE-based Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Networks (NPSBN). Yet, I was surprised at how many times the topic of cold, hard cash came up during the FirstNet board's press conference last week.

It was a bit humbling to sit with a handful of other journalists in a ridiculously small, windowless room at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) offices in Boulder, Colo., where we were nearly elbow-to-elbow with a group of the most powerful folks in U.S. public safety. But I soon realized we're all in the same boat: I use coupons and look for clearance deals at the grocery store, and FirstNet is looking for any ways it can save money to build the NPSBN.

Congress allocated $7 billion for the NPSBN, but only $2 billion of that is really available at this point. The rest will not be available until the FCC conducts its incentive auctions sometime in 2014, and the total those auctions will really generate for public-safety communications is anyone's guess.

"From day one--which is Sept. 25 for us, a day that will live in infamy here at FirstNet--our mission has been to serve the public-safety community by delivering a world-class public-safety broadband network at the lowest possible fees," said longtime telecom industry veteran Craig Farrill, who has taken on a leadership position within the group.

"Cost is a huge factor," said Chuck Dowd, FirstNet board member and deputy chief of the New York City Police Department. The agency needs to find "creative ways" to fund the network buildout and reduce costs, he said.

Teri Takai, former CIO for the states of Michigan and California, cautioned that FirstNet must ensure the technology employed fits with the aim of low cost because "there is no extra money."

Besides the obvious funding issues that FirstNet must contend with, there are also issues of trust that remain to be settled. Questions regarding FirstNet's transparency, or lack thereof, keep popping up.

Members of the public-safety community alleged in private conversations with me the existence of backroom deals regarding the initial network design and more. Whether or not this is mere tabloid gossip or not, these rumors are not being helped by FirstNet's months of silence. This is the kind of muck that could create a political quagmire for an agency that has neither the funding nor the spare time to extricate itself.

Furthermore, the board's intention to present technical plans for the NPSBN at FirstNet's April board meeting appears premature. Lots of folks have been yelling that FirstNet needs to move quickly. However, some first responders and experienced public-safety communications vendors contend FirstNet is moving ahead without adequate consultation, which is akin to cranking up the fire hose before the firefighter is there to direct it.

Farrill said respondents to last fall's Notice of Inquiry seeking comments on the NPSBN generated "several feet of input" and is available to everyone at FirstNet doing network design work. There are about 1,300 requirements in the network launch criteria alone and more than 5,000 requirements in the long-term plan, he said. FirstNet clearly feels that it has received more than enough input to get moving on its big vision, but at least a few folks remain unconvinced and feel estranged from the process.

I don't doubt the sincerity of those on FirstNet's board who want to build a great public-safety network despite the minimal tools and inadequate funding they've been handed. They see their jobs at FirstNet as a public service and realize that if they pull off this gargantuan task they will also create a legacy for themselves as pioneers who revolutionized U.S. public safety.

Farrill said the NBSPN has to be "a 'you bet your life on it' network," and that sums up the importance of this undertaking. These early days will set the tone for everything FirstNet does from here on out. It cannot afford--financially or figuratively--to make any mistakes that might shake the public's trust.

Do you think FirstNet has been transparent enough so far? Vote in the poll on our home page.--Tammy

P.S. We're taking a holiday break. FierceBroadbandWireless will not publish on Monday, Feb. 18, due to the Presidents Day holiday, but we'll be back in your email box on Tuesday, Feb. 19.