FirstNet shroud of secrecy raising public-safety vendors' ire

The board of the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) will hold its next meeting on Feb. 12, giving it a chance to respond publicly to a barrage of complaints regarding the board's perceived lack of transparency and responsiveness.

FirstNet is charged with building the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN), which will use LTE technology in the 700 MHz band. Next week's meeting, which will be open to the public, will be held at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Radio Building in Boulder, Colo.

In a statement sure to raise the ire of those who already feel FirstNet is being too secretive, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which oversees FirstNet, issued a statement disclosing that some of the Boulder meeting may be closed "to preserve the confidentiality of commercial or financial information that is privileged or confidential, to discuss personnel matters, or to discuss legal matters" affecting FirstNet.

The FirstNet board has been on the job since August 2012 and has had only two meetings--one in September and one in December--raising frustration levels among representatives of the public-safety sector. An overall lack of communication and failure to address responses solicited as part of a notice of inquiry (NOI) process initiated last fall point to problems, said some panelists during a roundtable organized by project-management firm Textron in Washington, D.C.

"We are concerned that there has been something of a cone of silence dropped around the process," said Brian Hendricks, global head of technology policy for telephone-equipment maker Nokia Siemens Networks. Meetings with the FirstNet board are difficult to set up, which "leaves most of us with the sense that we're sort of fumbling around in the dark for the light switch, and that is a concern," added Hendricks, who was quoted by Bloomberg.

"It seems FirstNet has kind of shut themselves off," said Donald Hairston, a senior vice president at Textron. "How do you build systems if you don't talk to your users?"

Panelists expressed frustration that despite FirstNet receiving 133 NOI submissions before the end of 2012, there still has been no official acknowledgement of the suggestions that were offered, according to Urgent Communications.

Roundtable participants also addressed a conundrum facing FirstNet's board: whether to build a commercial network that meets public safety's needs or build a public safety network that can be opened for commercial use by network operators.

"Commercial interests are not going to be aligned with public safety--if that were the case, maybe we wouldn't need all of this activity in the first place," said Don Brittingham, vice president of national-security and public-safety policy for Verizon Wireless, who was quoted by Urgent Communications.

FirstNet board member Jeff Johnson, a retired Oregon fire chief, issued a statement addressing concerns expressed by those at the roundtable. He said people are misconstruing the time being taken to set up FirstNet "as a lack of desire to listen and discuss our plans."

FirstNet intends to reach out to the public-safety community, state, local governments and tribes, Johnson said, adding that FirstNet board members have already begun meeting with these stakeholders."We are anxious to kick off a broader dialog with the vending community in the second quarter of this year," he said.

For more:
- see this NTIA notice
- see this Urgent Communications article
- see this Bloomberg article

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