FirstNet's first GM coming on board amid controversy

The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) is slated to name a general manager today during a special public meeting, which should help the nascent organization get down to the business of designing the National Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN). Yet many public-safety entities and state representatives remain concerned that the network is being designed with too little transparency and outside consultation.

The new GM will replace board member Craig Farrill, who has filled the role of acting general manager since December.

During last week's FirstNet oversight meeting held by the House Energy and Commerce Committee Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, FirstNet Chairman Sam Ginn emphasized that FirstNet has had to ramp up quickly with no history behind it. "We have no milestones to measure our performance. We have no employees to start with. We have no budget. We have no financial controls. We have no audit function. We have no history and no culture," said Ginn, who was quoted by MissionCritical Communications.

Ginn sought to allay fears that FirstNet is developing NPSBN plans on its own, without collaborating with state public-safety entities or other interested parties that have expertise to lend. "We've been directed to build an LTE network. We know what we're going to build," he said.

But Ginn said the board has only created "network concepts" not a final design. "And we're not likely to ever complete a final design because as you learn you update your architecture, and that will happen over time," he added.

However, Chris McIntosh, statewide interoperability coordinator for the Commonwealth of Virginia, indicated FirstNet's lack of transparency been disconcerting. "In the inaugural FirstNet board meeting, a national architecture for the network was presented, and we are told that a more refined version will be presented in April. This network is being designed before any of the consultation mentioned before has been done," he said.

Further, Greg Walden, subcommittee chairman, asked about state representation on the FirstNet board and was informed not one board member is actually on a state payroll and representing state interests.

Another issue facing FirstNet is which agencies will be given access to the NPSBN. Numerous groups, including utilities and transportation departments, are angling to use the network along with first responders.

During a roundtable discussion at the International Wireless Communications Expo (IWCE) last week in Las Vegas, board member Jeff Johnson--who is CEO of the Western Fire Chiefs Association--noted that although the law specifies a "public-safety network," FirstNet's board "is choosing to interpret that pretty broadly."

Johnson, who was quoted by Urgent Communications, added, "Whether [the network] is broad enough to include utilities, transportation and public works, I think this board is seeing it as the broader public-safety community, and not just the people who spray and shoot and get shot at."

"The ability to set partnerships with utilities, and they become almost a first responder or a second responder in support of first responders, is going to be hugely helpful," said Charles Dowd, deputy chief of the New York City Police Department, during the same roundtable. "You want to ensure that they can get their job done and that you can communicate with them efficiently during [disasters]."

FirstNet was created by the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 as an independent authority within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration with responsibility for establishing a single, interoperable, LTE-based NPSBN.

For more:
- see this FirstNet March 18 meeting agenda (PDF)
- see this Energy and Commerce Committee video
- see this MissionCritical Communications article
- see this UrgentComm article

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