In August 2016, my Public Safety Advocate column was called Fact Checking and it dealt with an article that appeared in the Atlantic that was not in any way, shape, or form based on facts. This week an article that appeared on the website of The Washington Free Beacon by Josh Peterson is yet another article long on negative comments about FirstNet and short on facts.
The first thing that catches your eye is the statement up front: “Conceived out of the recommendations from the 9/11 Commission, the government is still working through how to build the network, called FirstNet, which would allow law enforcement and other first responders to coordinate using high quality data and voice communications across jurisdictions with a range of compatible devices.” This seems to imply that it has taken the federal government more than fifteen years to reach the point where FirstNet is finally ready to be built. In fact, the 9/11 report did call for better interoperability for the first responder community and through grants provided by the Department of Homeland Security much progress has been made. However, because Public Safety voice communications systems occupy multiple different portions of the radio spectrum, better interoperability has been slow in coming.
Years later the Public Safety community conceived of FirstNet and then it took another four or five years to convince Congress, the Executive Branch, and the FCC that a nationwide broadband system designed for Public Safety was the best solution for the future. It was already eleven years after 9/11 when Congress passed the Middle Class Tax Relief Act of 2012 in February of 2012. Public Safety was awarded what it agreed to in 95% of this legislation. Congress was unwilling to fund the entire cost of the network (estimates for a build-out and 10-year operation exceed $30 billion) but did allocate a “starter kit” of $7 billion to be funded not by the U.S. Treasury but by future spectrum auctions.
Therefore, the federal government has not spent the past fifteen years trying to figure out how to do this, Public Safety has been promoting the idea for the past eight or nine years and FirstNet only turned five this past February. Those in Congress who passed Title VI of the bill always intended for FirstNet to be a public-private partnership. They enabled FirstNet’s spectrum to be used on a secondary basis to increase the income available to the private company building the network, but Public Safety must have absolute priority no matter what. This was because those in Congress knew a nationwide network that supported about three to four million first responders could not support itself and Congress did not want to earmark U.S. Treasury dollars for any shortfall.
There is a quote in this article from Jim Pasco, a senior advisor to the President of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) that said, among other things, “Instead, the bureaucrats set FirstNet on a course which would ensure extraordinary profits for the industry member who won the contract, without regard for the technology needs of those who protect and defend our citizens in crisis situations,” Extraordinary profits? Really? Okay, say I am the winner of the FirstNet RFP and I now have a thirty-year contract to build, operate, and update the network nationwide and yes, I am permitted to use the spectrum for my network customers when it is not in use by Public Safety.
Let’s do some math. I build out the network at a cost of about $30 billion of my company’s money and I set aside $billions more to operate and upgrade it for the next thirty years. Great! Now, major metro areas where the spectrum is needed to help relieve some overcrowding of my existing commercial networks will make my company some money. However, in the United States there are about 3200 counties or county equivalents. This does not cover tribal areas and territories I must also cover. Of those 3200 counties, we know from our research that more than 50% of them cannot support the FirstNet system. They cannot support the cost of the network build-out and they cannot support the ongoing expenses including tower leases, fiber costs, network operations, and maintenance. Further, since my company is required by federal law to cover more of rural America than the existing network operators do, my build and operate costs will be even higher.
There are two reasons more than 50% of the counties in the United States will not be able to cover the costs. The first is that there are not enough Public Safety agencies and first responders in the county paying a monthly fee to use the network to pay for the build and operate costs. Next, these counties (many very rural) do not need the spectrum for secondary users because they are not where the network congestion is, the need for this spectrum is in metro areas. The object of the contract is for the private company to build out the network meeting the coverage requirements and use the income derived by secondary use in metro areas to help offset losses in the 50%+ of counties that will either break even or cost the private partner money each month. No matter what math I employ, I cannot see that I will make extraordinary profits. Perhaps over the course of the contract I will make money but I bid on the RFP to serve the Public Safety community as well as to make money. I don’t want to lose money but I certainly won’t make my fortune building and operating FirstNet.
There are also some interesting comments about the Congressional Research Services (CRS) annual report on FirstNet. CRS is part of the Library of Congress and every year since the inception of FirstNet it has provided an update. Unfortunately, the person who usually wrote these reports passed away last year so the report reflects her views in 2016 and not what happened with FirstNet in 2017. The new author of the report has not come fully up to speed and has been reaching out to others to assist him moving forward. It probably would have been a good idea for the author of this article to consider talking to him as well as to others within the Public Safety community. The opinions expressed by the advisor to the FOP president are far from the opinions held by many in the Public Safety community. A little extra work on the part of the writer would have easily come up with different points of view on the value of FirstNet.
It is also interesting to me that the author makes a number of statements about Motorola and its Land Mobile Radio business. In fact, Motorola is not a prime bidder for the FirstNet contract but certainly is a contender to work with the winning bidder because of its long-standing relationship with Public Safety. A little research would also show that Motorola is healthy, Land Mobile Radio (LMR) sales are not decreasing by the day, and Public Safety views FirstNet as an addition to its communications services not a replacement for them. LMR will not be disappearing anytime soon and Motorola has been working on crossover devices and ways of bridging the LMR and FirstNet network for voice services as well as many other facets of the types of services that will be needed. The rest of the comments about Motorola are not factual either.
It is not clear to me what point the author of this article is trying to make. That the federal government moves slowly? That it is wasting money even though a private company is willing to spend it? That the $7 billion the government invested from money made by auctioning other spectrum so it would not impact the national debt is a waste? There is no conclusion and no point made for all of the information provided and for a lot more information that was omitted. Trying to make the federal government look bad is one thing but attacking FirstNet, an organization of people working for sub-industry-standard salaries in order to serve the Public Safety community is not right. I have to questions the author’s willingness to truly dig into the story behind FirstNet, the sweat, tears, and sacrifices of the many Public Safety and professional communications personnel who helped create FirstNet and those at FirstNet who spend more time with Public Safety departments than with their own children and have done so for the past few years. They do all this because they believe FirstNet is all about providing Public Safety, including members of FOP, with better communications tools to make their jobs easier, to make them safer, and to better serve their customers—all of us!
Andrew M. Seybold