The FirstNet Board of Directors

The Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, in Title VI, requires the creation of a board of directors for the organization that will oversee the building of the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN) and its subsequent operation. This board is to be made up of fifteen individuals. The law requires three Federal statutory members (the U.S. Attorney General, Secretary of Homeland Security, and Director of the Office of Management & Budget), at least three members from the Public Safety community, at least three members representing the states, territories, and tribal nations, and six others. Once the board has been chosen by the Secretary of Commerce, who has been given a deadline of August 20, 2012, the board will begin the process of setting up the organization and determining who will report to the board. Per the legislation, the board members will be considered Federal employees and will be compensated on a daily basis on what is known as Executive Level 4, which turns out to be about $600 per day (maximum of $155,500 per year).

These people will be policymakers functioning only as a board of directors and others will be needed to actually run the organization. The people chosen for these positions and their compensation levels will be the key to the success or failure of the NPSBN. The people needed for the CEO, COO, CTO, and CFO-type of positions reporting to the FirstNet board need to be high-level, skilled people who have been involved in planning and setting up a broadband network and handling the finances, technology, and operational aspects of such a system.

These people must be recruited from within the wireless industry, preferably from among those who have “already been there and already done that.” In order to attract the quality of people needed, I believe their compensation level will have to be well beyond Federal Executive Level 4. As an independent authority, FirstNet employees should not report to the NTIA, they should report to the FirstNet board. The executives chosen to head up FirstNet and report to the board of directors are critical to the success of the network. If Federal employees with little or no real-world experience are appointed to these positions, at normal Federal government pay scales, the likelihood for the network’s success will be greatly diminished. FirstNet needs to take a page out of the establishment of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which is a similar type of company also established by the U.S. Department of Commerce. In November of 1998, the Department of Commerce officially recognized ICANN as the organization that would inherit the responsibility for managing Internet names and numbers.

The NTIA is located within the U.S. Department of Commerce, which essentially makes it part of the Commerce Department. I bring up ICANN here because its C-level executives are not paid based on Federal guidelines. They are paid salaries commensurate with the private sector to attract the best, most qualified executives. For example, the new CEO has a three-year contract at $800,000 per year; other C-level executives are compensated along the same lines. The ICANN Compensation information sheet published in July 2011 states:

“The overarching objective of ICANN’s remuneration framework is to ensure remuneration provided is competitive globally and that it provides staff with appropriate motivation for high performance towards agreed objectives. The remuneration philosophy aims to:

  • Attract and retain high caliber staff
  • Ensure it is competitive
  • Ensure it is transparent

Additionally, ICANN uses private sector compensation items such as

  • At risk (bonus) eligibility based on position and achievement of goals and objectives
  • Time off benefits (vacation, holiday, sick time, bereavement, jury service, and the like)
  • Health and welfare benefits (medical, dental, vision, life insurance, accidental and dismemberment, and the like)
  • Retirement benefits
  • Housing allowance”

I am not suggesting that FirstNet C-level executives’ salaries should be based on ICANN compensation, but rather that this type of compensation and terms should be used as guidelines. In order to attract the brightest and best, they must be compensated well, commensurate with the commercial wireless industry. The best of all worlds would be to recruit executives who have worked on the design, building, implementation, and operation of a fourth-generation wireless network. There are a number of well-qualified individuals who would welcome both the opportunity and the challenge to work on this network.

FirstNet should be viewed as a startup. If we look back at the history of wireless networks in the United States, we will find that the most successful of them started out with very strong C-level management in their early days. Some examples are Craig McCaw and his team at McCaw Cellular; Jai Bhagat and team, founders of SkyTel; John Stanton, T-Mobile and VoiceStream; Denny Strigl, Ameritech Mobile and then Verizon Wireless; Dick Lynch, Verizon Wireless; Michael Armstrong, AT&T; and a host of others. It took their vision and understanding to build what are today’s successful commercial networks and FirstNet will be facing the same challenges, so it makes sense to hire the best of the best to get the job done.

FirstNet has to design, build, and operate what is termed a “greenfield network,” that is, a new network from the ground up, on spectrum that is not encumbered by others. While FirstNet can certainly benefit from past experiences, it would be better to have some of those who built these networks, managed the finances, and managed both the construction and operation of a major, nationwide network in positions of authority, reporting to the FirstNet board. I believe that if the C-level positions within FirstNet are simply made available at Federal pay scale levels, to existing Federal employees looking to add to their resumes, the chance of this network coming together and being successful will be greatly at risk. There is funding available, and in reality, hiring capable people who have already been successful in designing and building a network will save money in the long run by reducing the number of missteps, bringing the network up sooner, and attracting paying customers more quickly. If FirstNet is to be successful, it must become self-supporting. To do that, it will need to attract as many Public Safety agencies (and perhaps other first responders) as quickly as possible, and provide the type of service they are expecting. Any less and the network will languish, not being used to its full advantage.

We are all waiting, patiently, for the Secretary of Commerce to announce the members of the FirstNet board, but many of us are also looking ahead to the multiple tasks FirstNet will have to accomplish in a very short time. This means, to me, that as important as those who will serve on the FirstNet board of directors are, their choices for the executives who will work toward the design, implementation, and operation of the network are critical. If FirstNet does not hire and compensate the best, those with experience and who have already been successful in the broadband world, the network will suffer and those within the Federal Government and elsewhere who were opposed to building and funding this network will be able to point to the failure as proof of their convictions.

Public Safety NEEDS this network, now more than ever. Many within the Public Safety community have worked at their own jobs and given time and energy to get this far. We cannot afford to jeopardize these efforts by not having the right people in the right jobs at the right compensation.

Andrew M. Seybold

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2 Comments on "The FirstNet Board of Directors"

  1. I nominate you, Andy.

    If they don’t have someone like you, they will fail. Even the best and brightest visionaries, with successful wireless network construction in their past, need a common-sense anchor when so many public dollars are at stake. Moreover, it’s a project which will make or break this sort of funding forever! Add to that a trusted blogging nexus to inform the Public Safety community, and it is no longer arguable. …my 2¢

  2. Peter–thanks for your confidence in me! I appreciate it, but there are a lot of good qualified people out there who can insure that this stays on track. Having said that, after donating a lot of my time over the past 3-4 years I would really enjoy a chance to be part of its success, but then these desicions will be made by others and I am hoping that they make the correct ones for Public Safety.

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