Senators grill FirstNet's Swenson on rural coverage, hiring process

In the first Senate Commerce Committee hearing on its progress toward establishing a common nationwide broadband public-safety network, the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) was queried on everything from how it will incorporate rural areas into its broadband network to the excruciatingly long periods it takes FirstNet to hire people.

FirstNet board Chairwoman Sue Swenson, who fielded questions on behalf of the organization, brought up the personnel and procurement problems in her testimony during the hearing, which was called by Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, after the U.S. Office of Inspector General (OIG) published a report late last year detailing some of the problems the organization encountered, mostly around reporting procedures and conflicts of interest.

FirstNet said at the time of the OIG report that it had already addressed many of the recommendations by the time it had been published in December. Swenson acknowledged that FirstNet got off to a rocky start, suffering "growing pains" in its early days. However, she said, the board is on track to deliver a draft RFP by the end of this month and expects a final RFP before the end of the year.

Several senators noted the need to make sure that the rural areas in their states get proper communications to meet the challenges that come with major incidents and emergencies.

Swenson also was asked why states should opt into FirstNet rather than using a private distributor to accomplish the task. "I think the rural coverage is really a critical differentiator," she said. "This is a dedicated network. … What happens when you have an incident? What is the first thing you do? You get on your cell phone."

Commercial entities have shareholders and earnings releases they have to worry about. "We don't," she said. "The money that we get from this, we're going to reinvest in the network, so it's dedicated; it also has priority pre-emption."

Regarding commercial enterprises, she said: "I was one; I know where the priority is. It's about finding customers, getting revenue, responding to shareholders every quarter. FirstNet is very different, and I think it's really important for people to know. Even if you decide to let us deploy your network in your states … the public-safety agencies are not obligated to sign up. There's no mandate that says they have to," which drives FirstNet to create a compelling value proposition that gives public-safety agencies more value than they have today.

She added that the land mobile radio systems that public-safety agencies use today are 10 or 15 years old in many cases, and it's very difficult for agencies to get the funding to upgrade. "The model that we have is talking about upgrading that as technology presents itself," she said. "For example, if we start to deploy this network and we move from 4G to 5G, then we will be deploying 5G. So we're going to give first responders the technology that we enjoy as consumers today as that technology evolves."

FirstNet is working on standards for ruggedizing systems so they withstand the types of emergencies that states experience. "We want to understand what those circumstances are. We're working to define a hardening standard so that we can try to harden the network to withstand instances from a weather perspective," she said. "This is an organization dedicated to public safety. It's not secondary; it's primary."

FirstNet has $7 billion from the last auction, as well as "very valuable, beachfront property" spectrum, she said, and it will get revenue from that as well as user fees.

Senators also wanted to know how they can help eliminate some of the red tape that FirstNet is required to go through. In her testimony, 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. Naturally, FirstNet has lost out on a lot of talented engineers who are not going to wait that long and instead are going to the Apples and Googles of the world.

Swenson said that although FirstNet is pleased with the progress it has made in outreach efforts to the public-safety community, more needs to be done. FirstNet is seeking to hire 10 regional teams to ensure that sufficient resources will support its outreach and state consultation efforts. FirstNet has met with 15 states and has 24 additional state meetings scheduled through the summer. The plan is to build strong relationships with local, state, tribal and federal entities to get their feedback as well.

For more:
- view this hearing webcast
- see this FierceMobileGovernment' article

Related articles
FirstNet board OKs second notice seeking comment
FirstNet holds 'kick-off' consultation to bring federal agencies into the fold
Lawmakers call for hearing on FirstNet after IG report lists public disclosure concerns
FirstNet taken to task over conflict-of-interest procedures, financial disclosures