Fri May 6 14:07:29 2016
Unlike CNN, I won’t be posting a clock with a countdown to the day and time responses to the FirstNet partnership RFP are due at FirstNet headquarters. Suffice it to say that this is the sixth of May, RFP responses are due by the end of this month, and I do not believe there will be any more time extensions.
Recently, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) published its latest update. The CRS is part of the Library of Congress and has been providing Congressional staffers with reports on the need (or lack of need) for Public Safety Broadband Spectrum and FirstNet since well before FirstNet was created by Congress.
On April 28, 2016, the CRS sent another report in its series of reports on FirstNet to Congress. This one was entitled: The First Responder Network (FirstNet) and Next-Generation Communications for Public Safety: Issues for Congress, authored by the same person who has authored all of these reports. I was sent a copy of the report as have others, and it makes for interesting reading. You can find it here: https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/homesec/index.html so you can read it for yourself.
The CRS is part of the Library of Congress, and therefore, its bosses are the members of Congress. Naturally, most of their comments are focused on the states even when reviewing FirstNet and the mission it was given by Congress. So it should be no surprise that the report takes FirstNet to task for not looking at options that might be more state-centric. This first paragraph under the heading of “Issues for Congress” is an example:
“FirstNet officials face enormous pressure to produce a functional network in a timely manner, reflecting widespread concerns that public safety communications will not be adequate for response and recovery if a catastrophic national emergency occurs. Building momentum after a slow start in setting up the organization, it is possible that FirstNet, working closely with the NTIA, is now opting for expediency at the expense of states‚ own public safety goals. For example, much of the available information about the role of states in managing networks in their jurisdiction is — at this point in time — vague, with a heavy emphasis on proposals, drafts, and works-in-progress.”
The report goes on to discuss the fact that the FirstNet strategy might be too “Federal Centric” which, by the way, is a comment we often hear from states, counties, and cities. However, I am not at all sure how you would balance building a nationwide network if each state was permitted (as was previously proposed) to build its own network and then try to integrate all of the networks into a common nationwide network. The amount of finger pointing that would go on between states and different vendors in each state would be mind-boggling. The network would never become one that would enable first responders to travel anywhere in the United States, connect to the same network, and not only communicate with units surrounding them at an incident thousands of miles from their home turf as well as their own dispatch center.
The report goes on to discuss the fact that FirstNet had to issue several Requests for Information and in some cases a second version. This was a bill that was stuck into a much larger bill at the last minute as Title VI of the 2012 Middle-Class Tax Relief Bill and these Requests for Information were required because the bill was cobbled together at the last minute and many of the intentions of those in Congress who wanted FirstNet were not clear in their expectations. This bill never did receive the attention it deserved from Congress either before or after it was passed. Normally there are accompanying documents that discuss what was really meant by a law, but I do not believe such documents were ever created.
To further confuse things, the NTIA under which FirstNet was placed, has not viewed FirstNet as the “Independent Authority” I believe Congress intended. It is said that the attorneys inside NTIA could not even agree on the meaning of some of the terms in the law. FirstNet is trying hard and many of the states are frustrated as well, but the thing that concerns me the most is that the local city and county folks I talk to (I hear from a lot of them from all over the United States) are feeling mostly left out of this entire process receiving only high-level updates and what they read in the news outlets that cover the topic.
I am not going to comment further on this report. I think some of the points raised are valid, some are a total change of direction from previous reports, and in the end, what we really need to do is to let FirstNet and the Public Safety community continue on the course that is close to playing itself out. The success or failure of this network won’t come from any reports or news stories, or even from Congress. It will come from the number of Public Safety agencies that sign up to use the network when it is available to them. This will depend on what it offers, what it costs, how much coverage it provides, and agreements the vendor has with existing network operators. There is no other way to measure the success of this network other than first responder uptake, especially since the law is very clear on at least one point: There is no requirement for any Public Safety agency to make use of the network, so it will have to be something they consider as a tool that will help them perform their jobs at a reasonable cost.
All of these decisions are still a long way in the future. And it could take longer if the process of states opting out is prolonged by one or more of the three agencies the opt-out state must navigate starting with the FCC, then FirstNet, and finally NTIA. I am not at all sure how this will work since federal agencies tend to have trouble agreeing on almost anything. Suppose, for example, the FCC approves a state’s opt-out plan but FirstNet and the NTIA do not agree it is in keeping with the overall objective of the nationwide network. Then what? When three agencies are involved and a state is trying to make things work, and in Congress there are House and Senate members who were elected by the people in that state, it appears to me as though the entire opt-out process could add months to the process. This would mean any vendor awarded a nationwide contract for FirstNet will have gaps in its coverage for a lot longer than anticipated.
Andrew M. Seybold
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