FirstNet's making progress with draft RFP, but road is fraught with potholes

Monica Alleven, FierceWirelessTechThe U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently released its report on the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), finding, among other things, that while the organization has made progress, it still needs to complete a risk assessment, develop standards of conduct and come up with an evaluation plan for early builder projects.

FirstNet, which is tasked with establishing the first nationwide public-safety broadband network--something nobody has done before--responded that it was pleased about the part of the findings where the GAO said FirstNet has made progress in establishing an organizational structure, planning the network and consulting with stakeholders. "We also agree with the GAO's recommendations for improvement in certain areas and will fully implement them," FirstNet said in a statement.    

Getting FirstNet on board with this kind of stuff is nothing new. It said something similar last year after the Department of Commerce's Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued its report that faulted the group's board members for failing to adhere to financial disclosure rules and not having adequate protections to monitor for conflicts of interest. At that time, FirstNet said it concurred with the IG's recommendations, many of which it had already addressed, and it acknowledged administrative "missteps" that were made in its early days.

This more recent GAO report was conducted at the request of Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. Thune also called for the Senate hearing in March reviewing FirstNet's progress so far. 

There's no question that the nation needs a state-of-the-art communications system for first responders. What the GAO report underscores is 1) this is a monumental task that FirstNet is trying to accomplish and 2) there are so many stakeholders in this project that it boggles the mind to think anyone is ever going to agree and get anything done; and 3) the process is fraught with opposing stakeholders with a history of jurisdictional in-fighting, and they all have to get along.

In an attempt to streamline things, FirstNet has been working with single points of contact (SPOCs) in states and territories. The GAO says that in response to a survey, numerous SPOCs noted either that FirstNet's placement within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) could create "bureaucratic" obstacles or that FirstNet should be more independent from NTIA, which currently oversees FirstNet.

It goes back to one of the inherent problems in how this is set up. "Stakeholders expect FirstNet to behave like a commercial wireless carrier and a government entity, and these expectations can sometimes be in conflict," the GAO report says. "However, FirstNet officials told us that while FirstNet has leveraged its relationship with NTIA in administrative and legal matters, it exercises strong independence in decisions that are directly program-related."

That may be the case, but the kind of red tape inherent in the federal government does seem to be a limiting factor in how fast FirstNet can get things done. In her testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee earlier this year, FirstNet Chair Sue Swenson mentioned that it can take nine to 12 months just to get new hires on board by the time they go through all of the federal government processes and security clearances.  

The GAO report mentions this too. Numerous stakeholders told the GAO of their concern about the slow hiring process, which, again, delays FirstNet's progress. As of February 2015, it was also still hiring key technical positions, including director of devices, director of standards and director of core network, as well as refilling the chief technology officer position. Of course, FirstNet would benefit greatly by the kind of talented individuals who are working for the likes of AT&T, Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Verizon and on and on, but these people don't have 12 months to kill while muddling through a hiring process.

In a recent conversation with FierceWirelessTech before FirstNet released its draft RFP, LGS Innovations CEO Kevin Kelly said that FirstNet's challenges clearly are more about politics than they are about technical matters. LGS sells telecom products to the federal government and likely will be among the bidders for a piece of FirstNet's business. LGS participated in one of the pre-FirstNet projects that involved setting up a communications network on the big island of Hawaii in 2011.

"FirstNet is, I think, struggling to come out with a nationwide plan that all 6,000 counties and their associated leadership can all buy into and say yes, that's the architecture, yes, that's the business model that's going to work for us," he said.

FirstNet shares some similarities to another big nationwide project that was accomplished years ago, the one that involved building the Interstate highway system. "Nobody went to the individual states and asked for their opinion. They just said this is vital to national security and building a thriving economy and we're going to do it and here's the plan," he said. "Nobody is going to argue that was a bad idea."

Likewise, while it's great that FirstNet is gathering so many opinions--which it has to do--at some point, it's got to wrap it up if it's ever going to make progress. The longer every single entity weighs in on what's best for their own economic well-being, the longer it takes to accomplish the mission.

Until the network gets built--and there's already more than one nationwide cellular network in existence from commercial carriers, which were built on a market-by-market basis--there's really no drive for any of these counties or states to place a priority on getting their FirstNet requirements defined and to "start the process toward migrating off an antiquated system and onto a more data-centric system," Kelly said. There's no incentive or drive because the network isn't there.

"It's still just a discussion," he said. "I think the most valuable lesson learned that we experienced was get the network up and running. They'll see performance and the sophistication of the handheld devices," and there's a natural driving force there that would push each locality toward defining their requirements and migrating they systems.

There's a healthy debate whether FirstNet has been allocated enough money to build a network, but that's not what's taking so long. What if the feds just said, "sorry states, here's how we're going to do this and you're going to have to live with it"? I don't think that would fly at all. On the other hand, if you're going to talk to everyone--and I think FirstNet is genuinely trying to be inclusive with the state-by-state consultations and events like its upcoming Industry Day on May 14, there comes a point where you've got to call it good. Presumably, FirstNet is on its way to doing that.

But that's one of the things about FirstNet. Because it's never been done before and because its leaders are seeking a ton of input and there are so many elements to consider, we get to share our thoughts and opinions. There are so many things about it, and it's so vitally important to the country, that we could talk about it forever. And that, of course, is the problem.--Monica

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