FirstNet's Swenson says she almost quit, pushes for reconciliation

Tammy Parker, FierceWirelessTech

WESTMINSTER, Colo.--June 3, 2014, marked a new era for the First Responders Network Authority (FirstNet). Not only did the board meet in a public ballroom while audience members sat within spitting distance, but the new chairwoman brought along a refreshing candor that should go a long way toward healing the rift that had emerged between FirstNet and the overall public-safety community.

Following the morning board meeting, which was held at the Westin Westminster in conjunction with the PSCR Public Safety Broadband Stakeholder meeting, newly appointed FirstNet Chairwoman Sue Swenson made a stunning admission during her keynote speech: She nearly quit the fledgling government entity one year ago.

"I will tell you, in fact, that last year, I seriously thought about not standing for reappointment. I was so frustrated with a couple of things that occurred. I'll tell you very honestly that I was literally that close to saying, 'I've had enough of this,'" Swenson said.

But she decided to stay on because she felt building the national public-safety broadband network (NPSBN) is vitally important, not just to public safety but to the entire nation. Her current term lasts until August 2016.

"This is something that makes a difference, and that's frankly what keeps me here," Swenson said.

Rather than sweeping controversy under the rug, Swenson addressed it head on in her speech, addressing those who have contended that board members, such as herself and her predecessor Sam Ginn, who came from telecom backgrounds are ill-suited to develop the LTE-based NPSBN. The allegation has dogged FirstNet almost since its inception in 2012.

"I hope everybody sees that even though there may be some perceptions that maybe us industry wireless folks don't 'get it,' I hope that people will start to see the commitment and the conviction that we have, and that we really are 'getting it' on the part of the public-safety community. I hope you see that. If not, I'd appreciate it if you'd tell me," Swenson said.

In yet another remarkable statement, Swenson bluntly solicited support for her role from first responders. "I could certainly give this to somebody else to do if you don't think I'm the right person for the job. And I'm serious about that. But I really am committed to the public-safety community and to this particular effort," she said.

Swenson's speech also touched on reports of problems between FirstNet and the Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC) as well as FirstNet's own parent organization, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).

She acknowledged that relations between FirstNet and PSAC got off to a very bumpy start. "I think that collaboration has really matured," she said, acknowledging contributions from PSAC Chief Harlin McEwen. In what seemed an inside joke, Swenson added: "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger."

She also noted, "there's been a lot chatter out there" regarding FirstNet's reportedly testy relationship with NTIA. Though FirstNet is organized as an "independent authority" within NTIA, multiple sources have told me in the past that NTIA and senior members of its parent organization, the Department of Commerce, have tried to exert more influence on FirstNet than the FirstNet-enabling legislation appeared to allow, creating considerable friction.

Yet referring to NTIA, Swenson said, "I've got to tell you: These guys are great." She added that FirstNet has "a great relationship with them," though she acknowledged, "we may have had our issues with them early on."

Indicating the wearisome nature of the topic, Swenson added, "I really don't want to spend any more time on that topic."

Swenson wrapped up her speech by calling on members of FirstNet's constituency to put aside their differences.

"It's really time for everyone to put on the same t-shirt and be on the same team. And I can tell you, by looking through the audience today and talking to people, I feel like there are more of the same-colored jerseys on all the people in the audience than I've ever seen.  I just want you to know I appreciate it. I am committed to FirstNet's success," she concluded.

And with that, the Swenson era at FirstNet began. It's still early days, not just for the new chair but for the still-nascent NPSBN effort. But this is a promising restart, and I hope Swenson's candor and inclusiveness permeates all of FirstNet's activities going forward.--Tammy