Public Safety Advocate: Will the New Administration’s Axe Impact FirstNet?

Thu Jan 19 17:06:47 2017

The latest news from the new administration’s transition team is that they plan to start chopping jobs within the federal government, reassigning functions to other departments, and making all sorts of other changes to save what they claim will be $10 Trillion (with a T) over the next ten years. One of the departments called out by name is the Department of Commerce (DOC), home to the NTIA, which oversees FirstNet.

FirstNet’s funds do not impact the federal deficit since they were part of the proceeds of a recent spectrum auction, and most of the construction and operational funds will be contributed by the RFP Partner. Therefore, one would think that perhaps there will be no impact on FirstNet and thus the timing of the network and the work being done on behalf of FirstNet’s customers, the Public Safety community.

Perhaps such a move might bode well for FirstNet and can be the catalyst that moves it into an even more “independent authority” mode Congress seemed intent on creating. That would be a very good thing that could speed up the process and move this along even faster. So, I like to think these changes promised in the new administration’s first 100 days will be a positive move for FirstNet.

However, there will be those who will want to play what-if games with this information. What if FirstNet is moved over to the Department of Homeland Security or some other agency? Will that delay the entire process while those within the administration reorganize not only this but a number of other items? What happens to the NTIA? The transition team in charge of the fate of the FCC has not made its intentions known but rumors have been swirling around that they might re-define or dismantle the FCC and, again, spread their activities across other departments and even some to the states.

Would NTIA’s federal spectrum activities and the FCC’s spectrum activities be combined into a single agency in charge of all of the spectrum? Some would say with spectrum sharing and other spectrum collaboration issues that would be a sensible move. How would this type of major change impact day-to-day operations of these two agencies that are vital to the world of communications and, of course, the way business is done outside of government, within the government including our military, all of our three-letter agencies, and the Secret Service?

The reality is that whatever changes this administration is planning won’t happen as smoothly as planned, and without howls of anguish from various federal, state, and local groups and the citizens they serve. It is of vital importance that FirstNet move forward in an orderly fashion with no more delays while all of this is being discussed, changes are made, Congress is weighing in, new budgets are being prepared and, it appears, many government workers who have special knowledge in their own areas of expertise are shown the door.

Saving money, especially if it will end up with a positive result for all concerned, is not bad goal, but I am deeply concerned about how long it will take, how deep the cuts will be, and from a selfish point of view I guess, how it will impact FirstNet and the much-needed network deployment. In some of the hearings on the hill there have been some encouraging words about how important Public Safety is and how important providing broadband in rural areas of the United States is, but we have heard all of that before.

The Public Safety community simply cannot afford to let the changes being proposed by the new administration delay or change FirstNet’s current direction. Many people have been working for a very long time on this vision of an interoperable network for data and video and perhaps voice at some point in the future; a single network that is nationwide, territory-wide, and tribal nationwide as well. We are closing in on the elimination of the final hurdles.

If we lose the momentum we have, if the timetable for moving forward is needlessly delayed because FirstNet becomes a pawn in the overall federal government reorganization, we all lose. Public Safety communications has received the short end of the stick time and time again for various reasons but recently FirstNet has been making great strides and it appears we only have one more judicial hurdle to clear and then the real work can begin.

The last thing we need is to face more delays because of what others are trying to accomplish. At the end of the day, since the funds for FirstNet have already been allocated, and most of the rest of the funds will be coming from the private partner, I hope FirstNet will be left out of whatever changes are to come and any delays in making these changes will have on the government’s business. FirstNet is not the federal government’s business, it is the business of all who are in the Public Safety community and those who are served by this community every day of the year, no matter what is going on at the federal level.

Andrew M. Seybold

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