UPDATED: Mutiny at FirstNet as board member alleges improprieties

Verizon Wireless  (NYSE:VZ) executive Bill D'Agostino Jr. is now the general manager of the First Responder Network Authority, but his introduction was overshadowed by salvos launched by one of FirstNet's own board members regarding the authority's lack of transparency.

Bill D'Adostino Jr.

Bill D'Agostino Jr.

D'Agostino was announced as FirstNet's new GM during an April 23 board meeting in Washington, D.C. He was most recently executive director of networks, for Verizon Wireless in Southern California during 2008-12. His previous work history includes executive stints at Sprint PCS, Airtouch Communications and Pacific Bell. D'Agostino will take over FirstNet GM duties from board member Craig Farrill, who served as acting general manager for the past five months.

D'Agostino's appointment highlights rumors that FirstNet is heavily influenced by board members and outside consultants with links to Verizon Wireless and the former Vodafone AirTouch Communications, which was headed by current FirstNet Chairman Sam Ginn and eventually morphed into what is now Verizon Wireless. Farrill, for example, served as CTO for Vodafone AirTouch.

There have been other whispers among industry vendors and public-safety representatives of alleged impropriety and backroom dealings at FirstNet, which is charged with overseeing creation of the 700 MHz LTE-based National Public Safety Broadband Network. Those were brought into the open during the meeting by board member Paul Fitzgerald, who is the sheriff of Story County, Iowa, and also works with FirstNet's Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC), which is supposed to provide input to FirstNet from the public-safety community.

Going off script and breaking up the polite decorum that has punctuated previous FirstNet board meetings, Fitzgerald motioned for a resolution declaring that the development plan for the NPSBN has been flawed "in the face of the possible conflict of interest or the appearance thereof."

Paul Fitzgerald

Paul Fitzgerald

In a lengthy diatribe, Fitzgerald alleged the NPSBN plan has been developed minus the participation of certain board members, particularly those with public-safety rather than wireless industry backgrounds. He asked his fellow board members, "Where are the checks and balances? Where is the openness and transparency promised in the law which created this agency?"

Fitzgerald alleged that the real decision-making regarding the NPSBN has occurred outside of public board meetings, and he assailed a 400-page startup plan that was distributed among FirstNet board members last Friday.

"The plan was developed largely by consultants who were not engaged in a fair, transparent, objective manner as required by the law, whose qualifications in relation to the public-safety communications have never been disclosed or demonstrated to the board, who have prior relationships with certain members of the board who come from the commercial wireless world, not the public-safety community, and who are paid amounts that have never been disclosed to the board as a whole," said Fitzgerald.

Addressing the topic of outside consultants, a spokesperson for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which oversees FirstNet, told  FierceBroadbandWireless via email, "On March 18, 2013, FirstNet awarded an eight month contract to Workforce Resources, Inc. to provide professional staffing services for consulting expertise to assist with FirstNet start-up activities. Workforce subsequently sub-contracted with a number of consultants with expertise in the areas of wireless telecommunications, business strategy, industry market research, and outreach and communications."

The spokesperson also said that contrary to information provided to FierceBroadbandWireless by an industry source, FirstNet does not have a direct contract with 4G Partners. However, it is believed that individuals affiliated in some manner with that company are contractors for Workforce.

Fitzgerald also claims the NPSBN plan as it now stands has been developed without material input from the PSAC. "The plan has been presented to the board without any presentation of any analysis of alternatives to a heavy dependence upon commercial wireless carriers explicit in the plan," he said.

The plan has progressed so far that planned meetings and outreach efforts with states, territories and local public-safety entities will be pointless because they will be unable to alter what has already been decided, said Fitzgerald. He also charged that only certain members of the board have been provided with documentation regarding financial, business, technical and strategy plans for the NPSBN.

He called for creation of an independent review committee to study the current NPSBN plan and present alternatives to the board. Fitzgerald also demanded that FirstNet not finalize any NPSBN plan unless the proposed review committee has assessed it and states have had an opportunity to participate in its development.

The board tabled Fitzgerald's motion and members were quick to circle the wagons, defending FirstNet's decision-making processes and denying Fitzgerald's accusations, with many saying they had not heard similar complaints from other members of the public-safety community. Fellow public-safety representatives on the board were quick to condemn Fitzgerald's statements.

Board member Wellington Webb, former mayor of Denver, compared FirstNet's mission to that of the secretive Manhattan Project, which spearheaded creation of the United States' first nuclear bombs during WWII. Just as FirstNet is aimed at helping and protecting first responders, he said, "The Manhattan Project was going to save a lot of lives as it related to soldiers on the ground. They weren't part of the discussions. They weren't part of the working group. They were the beneficiaries of a product that was produced by the best quality minds of the United States. I think we have the capacity to do the same thing."

Saying he is "troubled by allegations of misconduct," Ginn instructed that Fitzgerald's assertions be dealt with, perhaps by internal counsel within the Department of Commerce. "I want those issues dealt with front and center, now," said Ginn.

In a press conference following the board meeting, Ginn called Fitzgerald's allegations "entirely false." The law requires every FirstNet decision be made in public, "and I think we've abided by that," he said.

In other news, the board announced a resolution on its dealings with the state of Texas, where Harris County has been operating a 700 MHz public-safety LTE network under Special Temporary Authority from the FCC. Though Texas is not a recipient of grant funds through the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), FirstNet intends to treat the state of Texas as it would a BTOP recipient for purposes of leasing public-safety 700 MHz spectrum. Board member Sue Swenson, who did not attend the April 23 meeting, was directed by the board to negotiate a lease agreement with the state of Texas for use of 700 MHz spectrum in Harris County.

Seven BTOP projects were brought to a halt last spring when funding was partially suspended by NTIA, which was concerned that the BTOP projects might not be interoperable with the NPSBN. FirstNet holds the single license for 700 MHz Band 14 public-safety broadband spectrum, which is why a lease agreement with each BTOP grant recipient--and now the state of Texas--is necessary to enable those projects to move forward using that spectrum.

FirstNet, whose initial board members were only named in August 2012, also unveiled its new logo during the board meeting.

For more:
- see this FirstNet release

Related articles:
FirstNet reports progress on restarting BTOP LTE projects
Identity of FirstNet's GM remains a mystery for now
FirstNet's first GM coming on board amid controversy
FirstNet: Pennywise and trust foolish?
FirstNet ready to resume early public-safety LTE projects
NTIA will hand out $121.5M to aid FirstNet effort

Article updated on April 23, 2013, to include comments and clarifications from NTIA.