Former DOJ CIO Doesn’t Understand FirstNet is Stakeholder Driven

By Ray Lehr, Retired, Public Safety Communications Advocate

Last week The Hill ran an opinion piece by Mr. Vance Hitch that correctly made the valid point that this summer will be “a critical moment” for the States as they decide to opt-in to the FirstNet solution, opt-out and attempt to build their own, or do nothing. But that’s about all his “drive-by analysis” gets right.

He fails to explain that this concept was stakeholder driven, not another Federal “technology project.” It’s unique because public safety, state and local representatives and Congress developed legislation that creates a new, independent authority which was envisioned to act as a “start-up” to deliver this much-needed technology to our first responders.

This is not your standard committee of government agencies directing a mega-project with little understanding of the ultimate needs of the users. FirstNet has been the subject of multiple Congressional hearings, like the one scheduled for this Thursday, to provide ongoing insight into the development of FirstNet. Thousands of conferences, outreach meetings, and formal State consultations have also taken place.

The FirstNet board has key leaders from each of the public safety disciplines: law enforcement, fire and EMS. They have “been there, done that” for decades. The board also has industry leaders who have started and run large enterprises who understand how to create an organization from the ground up that focuses on the needs of its customers. And the executives running FirstNet are not career Federal bureaucrats, they are seasoned professionals from the public safety communications industry who have successfully deployed mission critical networks at the local, State and Federal level. And both the CEO and President of FirstNet actually worked as “front line” first responders early in their careers.

It’s easy as an outsider to look at this as just another Federal government boondoggle. But those of us who have been involved from the beginning see the decade of hard work by public safety leaders bearing the fruit of all those efforts.

Many of Hitch’s conclusions are not an accurate portrayal of FirstNet’s partnership with AT&T. He is critical of FirstNet for awarding a $40 billion contract to the company. But that $40 billion isn’t what AT&T gets to add to their bottom line – that’s what AT&T has agreed to spend to deploy the network. FirstNet held multiple industry days and courted all the major carriers as well as large systems integrators. In the end, the other carriers and integrators were too concerned about the risk of guaranteeing payments to FirstNet over the next 25 years. AT&T, on the other hand, is fully prepared to invest what is necessary to make FirstNet a success.

Hitch additionally criticizes AT&T for getting rights to share tens of billions of dollars’ worth of 20 MHz of prime spectrum. While this is true, public safety gets priority and preemption, meaning immediate access to this spectrum no matter how many commercial users are on the network. Plus, and this is a big one, AT&T has committed to give public safety priority and preemption on all of their spectrum. In most areas of the country, that’s an additional 40 to 100 MHz of spectrum. If the public safety 20 MHz is worth “tens of billions,” public safety just got a bonus of hundreds of billions worth of spectrum. And that’s available today to any State that joins FirstNet.

Hitch’s concerns about “the long-term success and ultimate sustainability of the project” are valid. But that’s precisely why the contract puts all the risk on AT&T. As the “nation’s oldest telephone company,” AT&T should understand the risk and have a solid business plan to mitigate it. With so much at stake, what governor would want to take on the risk of opting out? That’s why both the legislation and the contract was written to take advantage of a public-private partnership that loads all the risk on the vendor.

FirstNet will, for the first time, provide a unified network to help strengthen the ability of first responders to communicate and collaborate with each other when responding to a crisis. Many people from the public safety community and the government have invested a significant amount of time and energy to effectively address this critical need. I encourage all governors to join in this very important effort to ensure first responders are the best equipped to ensure the safety of all Americans.

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Ray Lehr served 30 years in the Baltimore City Fire Department. In addition to being an incident commander for a wide variety of large scale emergencies he led the successful deployment of a City-wide 800 MHz public safety communications network. After retiring from Baltimore he worked for two systems integrators supporting similar mission critical networks including in NYC after 9/11. He returned to the public sector in 2013 as the State of MD Interoperability Director and successfully directed a Statewide deployment of a 700 MHz LMR network. Chief Lehr also served on the Public Safety Spectrum Trust, the precursor to FirstNet as the National Governors Association Board member, the State of MD Single Point of Contact (SPOC) for FirstNet. He testified before Congress in 2013 on the need for States and public safety to have a voice in the FirstNet design and deployment as well as numerous speaking engagements over the past decade.


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