Public Safety Advocate: A Look Back and A Look Forward

Thu Jan 5 18:37:58 2017

Happy New Year to all! I hope 2017 is the best ever for each and every one of us!

Last year was both a good year and a bad year for FirstNet. It was perhaps great because FirstNet issued the RFP for the partner to build, manage, and operate the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN). It was great because it worked a lot more with the states, federal agencies, and others interested in the network and its capabilities. It was also great because the office of the CTO announced and then opened the FirstNet Innovation and Test Lab, and continued to focus on network specifics while others in FirstNet were busy planning for the time after the RFP is awarded. And because in 2016 there was a new buzz and excitement about FirstNet.

However, it was also a bad year for a number of reasons, the first and most traumatic being the inability of FirstNet to announce the RFP winner and future FirstNet Partner due to a court action taken by Rivada because it had been cut out of the final phase of the contract review. This action will delay the outcome until March or April of 2017, but I don’t believe it will change the outcome. This delay is particularly unfortunate since momentum was building for FirstNet and Public Safety to reach the next major milestone and begin the long trek putting in the network. It felt like a Christmas morning with no presents underneath the tree.

The other bad news items were but minor annoyances compared to the delay in awarding the contract. There was some grumbling among the states regarding the opt-in and opt-out procedures, the timing, the amount of work a state must do to qualify, and the uncertainty of a state being able to successfully negotiate a contract for use of the FirstNet spectrum. Unfortunately, FirstNet was sometimes blamed for this cumbersome means of a state building and operating its own portion of the network and then not being able to reap the rewards of all of the secondary income derived from its use.

If a state has an issue with the way in which the opt-in and opt-out system was devised and became part of the law, it should take it up with its congressional representatives who are responsible for both the crafting of the wording of the bill authorizing FirstNet and the passing of the bill with the opt-in and opt-out wording as it now reads. I am sure that if FirstNet had control over the way in which it would work with a state wishing to opt out there would be a lot more flexibility. However, unless the bill is amended by Congress it is what it is and we have to do the best with it. Again, my advice is to opt in and negotiate some of the terms. The ongoing costs of operating a local network that must connect with FirstNet are often significantly underestimated, and the RFP winner would rather have an opt-in state that has driven a hard bargain than watch that state opt out.

There were also some bumps in the road when various state organizations did not feel as though they were being provided with the information they needed. In other areas of the country neither the Public Safety community nor the elected officials are aware of FirstNet’s goal of providing broadband services nationwide. FirstNet has not been great about conveying information to other than those directly involved with FirstNet or those who read related technical and Public Safety publications and blogs. The general press has not been reporting on FirstNet or what it means for Public Safety except for one unfortunate article in the Atlantic Monthly by a writer who did not interview anyone directly involved with the project and who did not grasp the concept. On the whole, I would grade FirstNet and those involved with FirstNet as earning a B in information dissemination. I hope next year this will be an A with honors!

Looking Ahead to 2017

Crystal balls don’t work very well when it comes to a project of this complexity, involving this many organizations, federal, state, and local politics, and an as yet unnamed vendor/partner. Add to this states that are not at all sure whether they should opt in or out, and an aggressive FirstNet timeline to build out a network with all the bells and whistles, applications, and devices that are needed.

Hopefully though, 2017 will unfold something like this:

1) Court case dissolved/dismissed in early March
2) RFP winning partner announced by the end of March
3) Initial work on network begins in May of 2017
4) States and FirstNet/Partner starts initial meetings in October
5) States and FirstNet/Partner has state plans in place in November/December
6) FirstNet customers start using commercial networks under FirstNet pricing plan before end of year

If it happens this way, it will have been a very good 2017. But like most military brass say, when you have a plan for the battle it only works until the first shot is fired. I don’t suspect for a moment that FirstNet will retreat, but there could be unforeseen delays, especially since there will be a period of time during the first quarter when the Department of Commence (DOC) and, therefore, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) which oversees FirstNet are in management and employee flux. It is unclear whether the new DOC and NTIA will want to put their own mark on FirstNet and the RFP or if they will, as I hope, have an even more removed role in FirstNet moving forward.

I would love to see the next DOC and NTIA let FirstNet truly become what Congress intended it to be by classifying it as an Independent Authority. I think if that is the outcome of the new faces that will be showing up after January 20, 2017, it will be a great accomplishment and one that will help FirstNet in its relationships with Public Safety, the states, and perhaps even the RFP Partner.

I am hoping that during the time of federal department transitions and new appointees and their staffs coming up to speed and reviewing their own set of priorities, that FirstNet will be able to award the RFP and embark on the next important phase of this long, drawn-out process. The year 2017 is a time to get back on track and move toward the ultimate goal of an NPSBN that is up and running, and populating it with first responders using a multiplicity of devices with a wide range of Public Safety-specific applications.

Most importantly, I hope for 2017 that those awaiting the FirstNet network do not expect it to happen all at once. As I have said before, it will take time to reach the initial stages of network build-out and then more time to enhance coverage and capacity. There will be hiccups along the way and I am sure some disappointments for all concerned but it will come and it will become what we all envisioned years ago, a fully interoperable broadband highway for the Public Safety community whenever and wherever it is needed.

Those at FirstNet have signed on for the long haul. I hope those coming into the federal organizations that touch and could affect FirstNet will realize that this is an effort that will be taking place during multiple changes in appointed management within the federal government. Further, I hope they will see that it is working for the good of the Public Safety community and that it is not broke so they won’t try to fix it!

Have a Great New Year!

Andy Seybold

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