Government Technology
By Bill Schrier: Making technology work for a city government.

FirstNet: Scandal and Resurrection

September 25, 2014 By Bill Schrier

McClatchy Newspaper’s Greg Gordon just wrote a well-researched investigative article about procurement problems with the nation’s First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet).  The details in the article correspond almost exactly with my mostly second-hand knowledge of the situation.   But I am hoping FirstNet and the nation can, with help, put this episode behind us and proceed to actually building a nationwide wireless broadband network for our brave responders who protect the safety of 320 million Americans.

ginn-sam The details of this problem are well-known to insiders and, with Gordon’s article, now to the general public:

  1. In February, 2012, Congress creates FirstNet, funds it with $7 billion from sale of spectrum, and directs the appointment of a 15 member Board of Directors. The Board consists of five federal members including the Attorney General and Secretary of Homeland Security, five members from “public safety” agencies, and five members with commercial or industry background.
  2. The Secretary of Commerce appoints the Board in August, 2012. The commercial members include wireless industry veterans Sam Ginn and Craig Farrill.   The Secretary appoints Ginn as the Chair of the Board.   Neither Ginn or Farrill have previously worked in government and are unfamiliar with many of the laws, regulations and practices of government agencies.
  3. FirstNet, although an “independent agency” under the law, finds itself subordinate to the National Technology and Information Agency (NTIA), and subject to all Federal personnel and procurement regulations. The personnel regulations severely restrict how fast FirstNet can hire full-time staff.
  4. Ginn and Farrill are anxious to get the network built as rapidly as possible, just like they’ve built private companies like AirTouch in the past. They use existing federal contracts to hire a set of 35 highly skilled technical staff at large salaries – up to $600,000 a year – to get the network designed.  One of those individuals, Bill D’Agostino, is named the General Manager of FirstNet.  NTIA and the National Institute of Standards (NIST), both agencies in the Department of Commerce, apparently acquiesce to this hiring.
  5. Almost all the contract staff are former acquaintances and co-workers of Ginn and Farrill.
  6. None of the hiring, the salaries or the details of the staffing contract are known to the public or the public safety community who will be served by FirstNet.
  7. The Sheriff calls “foul” on this practice in a public meeting of the FirstNet Board. The Sheriff is Board member Paul Fitzgerald, elected Sheriff of Story County, Iowa.
  8. After gnashing of teeth and probably a bit of weeping, the contracts are canceled, the high-paid contractors are terminated and the Inspector General launches an investigation (which still hasn’t been concluded).
  9. D’Agostino, Ginn and Farrill resign.
  10. In the meantime, FirstNet, under the direction of J. Kennedy, a former cop, firefighter and paramedic, builds a competent staff of over 60 federal employees and other contractors, and gets FirstNet back on track.

Greg Gordon’s article has all the details.   Again, based on all my knowledge and discussions with individuals involved, these details are correct except for two:  First, the Public Safety Advisory Committee  (PSAC) to FirstNet has at 40 members, not 5 as Gordon mentions.  Second, the initial contract for FirstNet staffing was let by a semi-competitive solicitation in late 2012.  this is the solicitation published under the authority of the U.S. Census bureau.   I say "semi-competitive" because competition was limited to an existing set of GSA-pre-qualified contractors, not open to all bidders.  (This paragraph updated from the original post.)

So what’s the truth in this? I think both Sam Ginn and Craig Farrill are honorable people, recruited by Larry Strickling, Director of NTIA.  Ginn and Farrill took their mission seriously.   They knew they were, essentially, in charge of a start-up company.   They knew getting the network operational was the mission.   And they set out to do it using every bit of their business skill and acumen.  They hired people who they worked with before, and who they knew could do the job.   They did not pay much heed to salaries.  “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.”

What Ginn and Farrill did not know was government.   They did not know how to run public meetings or how to respond to public disclosure requests.  Meetings occurred behind closed doors, begrudgingly televised with 1990s-era video tech.  They probably did not keep all the members of the board (e.g. Sheriff Fitzgerald) in the loop about their activities.   They either did not know about federal competitive procurement regulations or – worse yet - perhaps didn’t care.

There's also the possibility that Ginn and Farrill were mislead - that they thought the law's statement FirstNet would be an "independent authority" under NTIA truly meant "independent" in the fashion the Tennessee Valley Authority or Bonneville Power Authority are independent.  And that's independent from Federal Personnel regulations, the Federal Acquisition regulation (FAR) and similar constraints.  And, after they arrived, and tried to be truly independent, the boom was lowered.  (This paragraph added to the original post.)

Worst of all, they did not spend much time consulting their constituents, their future users, the cops and firefighters and other responders who need FirstNet.   They basically ignored and did not use the Public Safety Advisory Committee.

As one example of this, at the first meeting of the Board, on September 25, 2012, Farrill presented a “conceptual architecture” for FirstNet.    Where this architecture originated was a mystery to the hundreds of public safety officials – including me – who had been working on FirstNet and its predecessors for years.   Clearly Farrill was clueless about consulting constituents.

As another example, Sam Ginn famously testified in front of Congress that FirstNet would cover “every square meter” of the United States.   Mr. Ginn, honorable as he is, didn’t know much about testifying to elected officials or making promises.   There are a lot of pretty damned remote, hard-to-reach, “square meters” in the United States, some of them less than 50 miles from my home in Seattle.

paul-fitzgerald--sh Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald finally became fed up with this lack of consultation with public safety, and came out with a damning indictment of it during the April 23, 2013, Board meeting.   Fitzgerald, like Ginn and Farrill, is an honorable man, elected multiple times to public office, and well-versed in government.  

Fitzgerald’s failing was not involving his fellow public safety Board members – Fire Chief Jeff Johnson, Deputy Police Chief Chuck Dowd, and Kevin McGinnis, a paramedic and director of emergency medical services in Maine – in his concerns prior to the meeting.  They were just as startled about his accusations as other Board members.    Most elected officials of City and County Councils and State legislatures know they need at least one other person on their side to second their motions.

Where laws broken and is criminal prosecution in the works?

I doubt it.   Commerce Department Inspector General Todd Zinser is looking into the allegations of illegal or unethical contracting practices.   Perhaps he will find some NTIA or NIST officials bent the law in allowing the high-salary contractors to work on FirstNet.   It certainly is odd (and many of us puzzled over it at the time) that the first solicitation for contractors came from the United States Census!

With the IG’s upcoming report there’s another shoe to drop here, but I hope we don’t waste a lot of time waiting for it.

T. J. Kennedy Ginn, Farrill and D’Agostino left of their own volition.   Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald and Deputy Chief Chuck Dowd were not reappointed to the board.  (To some extent, I think Sheriff Fitzgerald was punished for blowing the whistle).     These are all honorable people trying to do their very best to support the public safety of the nation.   Like all of us, sometimes they make mistakes.  These key players in this drama are gone, and it’s just the mop-up of the Inspector General’s report which remains to put this scandal to bed.

I see great promise in FirstNet, and a new awakening of purpose under new Board Chair Sue Swenson’s and Acting General Manager T. J. Kennedy’s leadership. Let’s let them lead, unburdened by the past.


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Every Citizen Needs a Data Dossier

June 2, 2014 By Bill Schrier

Governments collect a lot of data on citizens.  Private companies like Google, Amazon and even Safeway collect even more.   In fact, a whole new thriving business of data brokers has emerged.  These are companies like Datalogixwhich indexes, mashes, cross-correlates, buys and sells our personal information.

On  May 27 the Federal Trade Commission released its report “Data Brokers:  a Call for Transparency and Accountability”.   The report demonstrated the pervasiveness of the data brokering business.  The brokers use billions of data pointsto build profiles – dossiers – on every American.   The data comes from both online and offline sources.   Online sources include searches you make using Google or Bing, as well as things you buy from Amazon and other e-retailers.  Offline sources include purchases you might make with loyalty cards from companies like the grocery chains.

The “billions of data points” include a wide variety of information such as age, religion, interest in gambling and much more.   Here is a list of 200 such fields.  From this data the brokers make inferences and classify people into affiliations such as “bible lifestyle” or “rural everlasting” (older people with low net worth).

Americans are rightly concerned with the amount of data collected on us by our governments.   Government data collection is widely reported in the press.  But private companies collect similar vast amounts of information.   That fact is not widely reported.  Examples:

  • License Plate Recognition.   Cities and other police forces collect large quantities of license plate scans which include location and time-of-day information.  For example, Seattle Police deployed 12 police units and collected about 7 million license-plate records in one year, identifying 426 stolen cars and 3,768 parking scofflaws.  But most of those records capture normal citizens parking their cars in front of their houses.  However private companies such as Digital Recognition Company collect 70 million scans a month and have a database of 1.5 billion such scans.   Such data is used to repossess vehicles when the owner defaults on a loan.  At least police departments report to elected officials who can oversee and manage how the information is used.  But who oversees the private scanners?
  • Facial images.  The National Security Agency (NSA) collects millions of images each day, including about 55,000 of high enough quality for facial recognition.   But Facebook alone has 1.23 billion active monthly users who post 300 million photos a day (2012 statistic).  Facebook users willingly “tag” the photos, adding the names to the faces.  This has created one of the largest facial databases in the world.   Such data could be used to automatically recognize people when they enter a restaurant or bar, or to display advertisements tailored to them in public or when walking down the street.
  • Drones.  There is great weeping and gnashing of teeth over the potential use of unpiloted aerial vehicles by government agencies.   The Seattle Police Department was so roundly criticized about potential drone use that the Mayor ordered the program ended.  Seattle’s drones were given (“gifted”) to the City of Los Angeles igniting a debate there.  Obviously people are concerned about the video and other data such drones might collect.   In the meantime however, commercial use and uses of such technology are exploding, ranging from real estate to news media to farming and private photography.
  • Sensors.  The Internet of Things is upon us.   Sensors are being added to almost every conceivable device.   Sensors on cars will be used to tax drivers for the number of miles they drive, partially replacing gas taxes.   Sensors on cars also are already being used to track drivers who break laws or otherwise have poor driving habits, and their insurance costs may increase.  Fitness sensors track our activity.   Refrigerators, furnaces, homes, even coffeemakers (“your coffee machine is watching you”) are getting sensors.

Who is collecting all this information?  What are they using it for?   What are we to do?

Perhaps we need to follow the example of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which requires the credit reporting companies to provide reports to individual citizens, but also allows those citizens to challenge information found in the reports.

Perhaps we need a “Citizen Data Dossier” law and portal – a secure online site or vault where everyone could find the information collected by each data broker andeach government agency about them.    In addition, individuals could challenge the information, ask for it to be replaced or removed and allow citizens to “opt out” of how their information is collected and used by the broker.

Biker-Hells-Angel-TypeBiker-Hells-Angel-Type

Governments, of course, represent a somewhat different issue.   Clearly convicted sex predators should not be allowed to “opt out” of government collection of their conviction data or have it removed from government records.   But certainly those who have false conviction data or other data (e.g. incorrect notice of suspended driver’s license) should be allowed to correct that information.

One thing is for certain:   once such data is available, we will discover how much of our information is available, and what private companies infer about us using it (“this guy is a Biker/Hell’s Angels type“).   And I suspect we will be scared and upset.


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Mr. FirstNet Comes to the (other) Washington

May 22, 2014 By Bill Schrier

ImageEd Parkinson, Director of Government Affairs for the First Responder Network Authority, visited Washington State (“the other Washington”) and Oregon this week. Mr. Parkinson met with senior officials here in Washington, including the State CIO, Michael Cockrill, and the Director of Emergency Management. He met with Oregon State officials and also gave a talk at the joint meeting of the independent telecommunications companies of Oregon and Washington. His appearance here in the Pacific Northwest gives me some additional hope for this noble effort called FirstNet.

The First Responder Network Authority was created by Congress in February, 2012. It was authorized to use $7 billion in funds obtained from the auction of spectrum to wireless telecommunications companies. FirstNet’s mission is to design and build a nationwide public safety wireless broadband network. Congress broadly defined “Public safety” as not just First Responders like cops and firefighters, but also transportation, utilities, public works and anyone who has a role in responding and fixing the incidents that occur every day, as well as responding to major disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes.

I am known as a skeptic of FirstNet’s progress, which I’ve blogged about in the past (Is FirstNet Stalled?).

But I’m also definitely heartened by recent developments in FirstNet’s efforts.

My current weather forecast for FirstNet is “fair and warmer”. Ed’s visit, plus a couple of other recent events contribute to that forecast. There are, however, a few storm clouds still on the horizon.

Here are some factors contributing to my sunnier forecast for FirstNet:

  • “We’re going to work with states to design this network.” FirstNet doesn’t just have a 12 step plan – it has a forty-five (45) step plan to design a network for each state. The plan includes a number of specific actions and meetings where local and state public safety officials will be engaged to specify the areas the network must cover, who will be authorized to use it, and how much it will cost.
  • FirstNet Folks are everywhere, underground and in the air. FirstNet acting general manager T. J. Kennedy, Ed Parkinson and other senior staff spend a lot of time speaking at conferences, talking to folks on the sidelines, answering questions, calling folks on the phone and responding to email. The procurement staff seem to be open to meeting with almost anyone who may have a service usable to FirstNet (if you can find their contact information). This represents a refreshing level of engagement.
  • State Consultation is on the Fast Track. FirstNet promised to publish a set of criteria on how they will work with states to design the network in each state by April 30th. And they met the deadline! David Buchanan is driving this process forward despite being short-staffed. FirstNet is actively working with state points of contact (like me) to set up meetings and come meet with local fire and police chiefs, mayors, sheriffs, county commissioners and others. The fact that Ed Parkinson visits with governors and states like Oregon and Washington is a positive sign.
  • A draft RFP by the end of 2014. FirstNet officials have promised a comprehensive request for proposals (RFP) for equipment and services. They’ve also promised to publish a draft of that RFP for review/comment by states, local jurisdictions and the vendor community. This is an excellent approach, as it should produce a good set of contracts which FirstNet can tap to build the network.
  • Public comment and review. FirstNet promises to ask its stakeholders – police and fire departments, transportation departments, electric and water utilities, commercial companies supplying products and others – to review some of its plans and ideas. These “public comments” build on a series of requests for information (RFIs) which FirstNet issued last year. This public comment process has worked well for other agencies such as the FCC and should help to generate good ideas for FirstNet. But as of this moment, such a process is still just a promise.

Storm Clouds with a bit of LightHere are some of the storm clouds or difficult waters which FirstNet still needs to navigate:

  • “I’m from the Federal Government, and I’m here to help.” Congress said FirstNet is an “independent authority” within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Yeah. Right. FirstNet is part of the Federal government. When a citizen calls 911, the FBI doesn’t show up. The local fire or police department shows up. Usually within 4 to 10 minutes. And those local responders depend on local radio networks and local 911 centers for dispatch and communications. Anyone who has waited in a line at the social security office (“your current wait time is one hour, 54 minutes”) or a veteran’s hospital (“your current wait time is 2 years, 54 days”) knows what a federal bureaucracy can be like. FirstNet has acknowledged it is subject to the onerous Federal Acquisition Regulation for buying stuff and the ponderous Federal personnel process for hiring staff. FirstNet needs to show it is nimble and able to meet the needs of the cop on the beat or the electric company lineworker on a pole inches away from a 25 kilowatt power line.
  • How much will it cost me? Will it be sustainable? Will there be enough money to build and operate it? These are all questions which those of us who are state points of contact (SPOCs) get every day. And, hopefully, they will be answered as design moves forward.
  • Staffing. FirstNet is charged with creating technical designs and business plans for each one of 56 states and territories. Due to the onerous Federal personnel process (see above), most FirstNet staff have been hired as transfers from other federal agencies - that’s much easier to do than to hire people with experience on the street but outside the Federal personnel system. Finding highly skilled technical staff has been even more of a problem and charged with controversy. But gee, here we are, two+ years after FirstNet was created, and the agency is really not staffed to do its work, with only about 50 Federal employees and maybe 20 contractors. Of course the real numbers are murky because of …
  • Transparency (or lack thereof). President Obama promised an open, transparent, government on his first day in office, January 20, 2009. But Federal agencies have been as secretive as ever in withholding real information from citizens, as shown in a recent PBS documentary. I’ve urged FirstNet to trumpet every small success, to acknowledge failures, to talk publicly about every person they hire, full-timer or contractor, to be open about their roadmap and finances. I know FirstNet staff struggle within the straightjacket of Department of Commerce policies on this. And I’m heartened by their embracing regular webinars with stakeholders, Twitter (at least five FirstNet folks tweet) and blogging to improve transparency. But, gee, where is the list of FirstNet staff and contact information on their website? I couldn’t even find the name of the procurement officer much less a current organizational chart on the website. In terms of transparency, there is a long way to go …
  • Board meetings. FirstNet Board meetings are ... ballet. The members are in a closed room in an disclosed location with video cameras for the rest of us to observe. When the meeting is over they escape out the back door to avoid reporters and those interested in engaging them. This is totally opposite of the way county commissions, city councils and state legislatures work, where officials are very approachable before and after meetings. I will say that individual board members and senior FirstNet staff from T.J. Kennedy on up to the secretaries are, individually, approachable and responsive to email and phone calls. But FirstNet Board meetings need to be coached on transparency and openness by any School Board meeting in any School District in the nation.
  • Advisory Committees. FirstNet has one advisory committee, the Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC) with 45 members. The meetings of the PSAC are closed. Although, again, the chair of the PSAC, Harlin McEwen, is very open and engaging with stakeholders. I personally think FirstNet could use an advisory committee of state elected officials (Governors, Attorneys General, Mayors) and perhaps an advisory committee of industry and commercial enterprises in addition to the PSAC. And PSAC meetings, just like FirstNet Board meetings or your local City Council meetings, need to be open for attendance by anyone.

I find that everyone I encounter at FirstNet, from Mr. Sam Ginn and Acting General Manager T. J. Kennedy on up to the secretaries and administrative assistants, to be committed to the job.Building FirstNet: the Nationwide Public Safety Wireless Network

Commitment was clear at NASA in the 1960s, where even the janitors knew what they were doing: “I’m helping to put a man on the moon.”

FirstNet staff know they are going to keep 330 million people safe and improve our national and local quality of life: “I’m building the very first nationwide public safety network.”

I see that commitment in Ed Parkinson. I see that in David Buchanan. I see that in T. J. Kennedy. I see it in members of the FirstNet Board. I see that in those of us laboring to engage responders in Oregon and Washington and Florida and Maryland.

The next FirstNet Board meeting is on June 3, 2014 in Colorado.

Will I see that commitment there as well?

I think and I trust that I will.

But we’ll see …

(This version is slightly edited from the original.)


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Government Employees: Bureaucrats or Entrepreneurs?

May 5, 2014 By Bill Schrier

BureaucratThere is an entrepreneur in every (almost) government employee.  It just needs to be unleashed.

"Innovation" is an overused word, especially in government.  Chief Innovation Officers are sprouting up in state and local governments as fast as dandelions bloom in the springtime.

I've contributed to this trend myself, publicly advocating Seattle's new Mayor Ed Murray to appoint a Chief Innovation Officer.  He did appoint Robert Feldstein as Chief of Policy and Innovation (although my advocacy probably had little to do with that).

But can government employees at any level – City, County, State or Federal – really innovate?  Or are they doomed to be unrepentant bureaucrats, steadily but blindly following rules and procedures?

What is "innovation"?  

I like Bryan Sivak’s definition of innovation as the “freedom to experiment”.

Many organizations – not just government, but really any large organization (think Boeing, the cable company, Microsoft) is captive to its rules, regulations, processes and procedures – its "bureaucracy".  

Governments are especially captive to their processes because they are subject to public scrutiny and criticism.  Many government officials hide behind policies and procedures saying "we treat everyone uniformly and equally" even though uniform processes often produce discriminatory results due to the differing circumstances of neighborhoods and individuals.

Consider a police department, for example, which handled abandoned cars in a uniform way. Callers were directed to a voicemail where they left information about the abandoned car in their neighborhood.  The information was transcribed onto slips of paper which were then given to parking enforcement officers (PEO) for each neighborhood who, along with a host of other duties, would track the cars down and tag them – when the PEO had time.  This business process had numerous problems – on weekends the voicemail box would become filled, and callers became frustrated.  Slips of paper became lost, or the information was improperly transcribed.  In some neighborhoods PEOs were overworked with other issues, and didn’t get to tagging the abandoned cars.

Freedom to experiment takes a lot of guts on the part of government officials.   By giving their employees or teams the freedom to try new processes – new ways of handling old problems – they must understand experiments may fail, subjecting their department to criticism.   "Fail fast, fail cheap, learn from the failure." 

Innovation is not just about Technology

In this razzle-dazzle world of the 21st century, we tend to think of "innovation" as synonymous with some cool new smartphone app or a new computer system which automates a paper-based process.

But the best innovations don't necessarily involve technology.  Indeed, they often are just changes in business process, sometimes enhanced by technology.

For example, consider Seattle's antiquated process for approval of siting of cabinets in the roadways.  These cabinets contain telecommunications equipment which allow higher speed internet in neighborhood. Placing the cabinets allows private companies to build high-speed fiber networks deep into the city. 

But, sometime in 2008 or 2009, someone complained to a deputy Mayor that one of the cabinets appeared in a neighborhood and was unsightly and intrusive.  The City's response was to create a draconian rule forcing telecom companies to get explicit approval of all homeowners, within 100 feet of a proposed cabinet, throughout the entire City of Seattle.

Such a rule has many problems, not the least of which is stifling competition to provide high speed internet.   But the City’s proposed response is to lift the rule, but require telecom companies to pay an annual fee for each cabinet.   The fee is, supposedly, to pay inspectors to make sure the cabinets don't become overgrown by weeds or marked by graffiti.  

In an age of 311 and citizen activism, with cameras in every smart phone, this is a solution worthy of the 1930s!   Clearly the city employees involved here are still living in a risk-adverse, anti-innovation age.

We do NOT want governments innovating on some issues.

Washington State just suffered a devastating mudslide near the town of Oso on State Highway 530.   Forty-three residents of that neighborhood lost their lives.   

In some places in Washington State – and elsewhere – building codes would have restricted the construction of a home in a slide-prone area.  At the very least, the potential homebuilders could have been forced to acknowledge the danger in the area before they constructed.  Yet a few homeowners in Oso actively resisted such "government intrusion".

We also want to be careful in how we innovate in matters involving public safety.  We don’t want experimentation with different shapes or colors of stop signs, for example.    In areas subject to hurricanes, earthquakes and similar natural disasters we probably want to be careful in how we change building codes.  

"Government Entrepreneur" is Not an Oxymoron

Mitchell Weiss said it best when he wrote this article in the Harvard Business Review on March 28th.  

"The idea of 'public entrepreneurship' may sound … like it belongs on a list of oxymorons … But it doesn't.  Public entrepreneurs around the world are improving our lives, inventing entirely new ways to serve the public."  

He cited a list of entrepreneurship in government, and there are many additional examples ranging from open data which begets a host of private sector apps to 311 to New Urban Mechanics, which has "institutionalized innovation"(and perhaps that IS an oxymoron) by both government employees and citizens.

Some things are best left to the private sector.

How about healthcare.gov as the poster child for this one?  No matter what you think of the Affordable Healthcare Act, the online implementation sucked.  Kurt del Bene, formerly of Microsoft, led a turn-around, but President Obama deserves credit for giving him the authority to fix the site.  And damn the bureaucrats in the Center for Medicaid Services (CMS) who used "tried and true" (i.e. non-innovative) processes to create it and failed badly.  Indeed, some states did much better, e.g. Washington.  In each case, however, engaging private sector companies and individuals is key to success.

Innovation is really about Leadership

It takes a lot of guts to be an innovative Mayor or Governor.   You’ll be subject to critics from every angle.  Government employees don’t want change because "this is the way we’ve always done it" and they fear individual responsibility to make decisions.    Members of the public and business communities will immediately line up on one side or the other, perceiving themselves as winners or losers.

Yet examples of courageous, innovating, leaders are abundant.  In 1944, Franklin Roosevelt forced the Washington Correspondents Association to admit an African-American reporter Harry McAlpin.  In 1964 Lyndon Johnson pushed civil rights legislation despite the obvious and continuing (to this day) damage to the Democratic Party in the South.   Just this year, Mayor Ed Murray of Seattle pushed a $15 minimum wage and obtained a supermajority of 21 of 24 members of his business-labor committee on a plan.

Great leaders know when to push, when to ask, when to cajole, and, most important, how to accept risk to push forward innovation and improvement in government.

There is an entrepreneur in (almost) every government employee and every citizen.  It just needs to be unleashed.


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FirstNet Moves into First Gear

March 11, 2014 By Bill Schrier


Firstnet-first-gear-2The First Responder Network Authority, charged with building a $7 billion nationwide network for responders and now two years old, moved into first gear this week.

In fairness, FirstNet was never stalled or stopped, although it appeared that way when I wrote “Is FirstNet Stalled?”on its two-year birthday, February 22.     Work was going on behind the scenes, and it burst out onto the stage this week:

  • A new website appeared, www.firstnet.gov, freed of the clunky National Telecommunications and Information Administration logo and design;
  • General manager Bill D’Agostino unveiled the most detailed org chart to date, which showed 40 full-time employees and another 50 or so on the way;
  • Leases and office space in Boulder, Colorado, and Reston, Virginia, are virtually complete;
  • Ed Parkinson (Director of Government Affairs), David Buchanan (State Plans) and Amanda Hilliard (Outreach) unveiled a “high level” 45 step plan for working with individual states to develop a plan and design for the construction of FirstNet in each state;
  • FirstNet-strategic-planningThe Strategic Planning process has a bit more detail;
  • At least two FirstNet officials established twitter accounts and followed my twitter feed in the last week – and I’ve followed them back.   This indicates a new openness and freedom in how FirstNet staff is operating.  (But I’m not revealing their names in order to prevent the NTIA enforcement apparatus crashing down onto them for violating some obscure policy.)

Overall, I’m encouraged.

As the State Point of Contactfor Washington (the state, not the place inside the beltway), I especially appreciate the additional information we received this week.  About 70 officials attended a conference in Phoenix for those of us in the western states who are working to prepare our states for FirstNet.    Each state already has a state-and-local-planning grant (SLIGP) for this work.   But many of us were waiting for a “starting gun” to launch our outreach and education efforts.  These efforts will find every potential Firstnet-using agency in our states:  law enforcement, firefighters, emergency medical, transportation, transit, public works, electric and water utilities, schools and everyone else with a public safety mission.

That starting gun is now fired.

We can proceed with that outreach.


FirstNet-state-consultationWe also know – and this is new information – that FirstNet will need to collect some additional detail about potential users:  the name of each agency, a point of contact, the number of potential users, the kinds of devices, any existing use of a commercial service and, perhaps, a bit more.  We don’t know the exact nature of the information to collect.  We’ll find out the details when FirstNet comes to our states for an initial meeting, probably sometime this summer.   And we expect there will be a data portal or template to standardize the way the information is collected.

Everything is not, however, sweetness and light.     Many toads remain sitting on FirstNet’s roadmap to attain our vision of a nationwide public safety wireless broadband network.

The business plan is still a mystery.

FirstNet officials say there are multiple paths to a viable business plan.   However FirstNet needs to build a network which covers a lot more geography than any commercial network – “every square meter” according to Board Chair Sam Ginn.    It needs to do that with about 5.4 million users, compared to more than 100 million each for Verizon and AT&T, and over 40 million each for T-Mobile and Sprint.   And its per-user subscriber costs need to be comparable to commercial providers, or many public safety agencies cannot afford to switch.   I’ve blogged elsewhere about elements which might constitute a viable business plan, including putting FirstNet in every consumer and business mobile phone, or building sensor networks such as electric utility smartgrid using FirstNet spectrum.

FirstNet has a long way to go to become more engaging and transparent.

  • It’s good to see the more detailed org chart, but who are all the full-time employees, with titles and contact information?  Most government organizations have a detailed staff directory (here’s the City of Seattle’s directory of about 10,000 employees and departments and services).
  • firstnet-gov-websiteThe new website is a worthy effort and an MVP (no, not “most valuable player” but “minimum viable product”).   Over time, hopefully, it will become timely and engaging, with one or more blogs, twitter feeds and even discussion boards as well as FAQs and a “mythbusters” section similar to what the Texas Department of Public Safety has built.
  • If I was in FirstNet senior management, I’d blog or publicize every person FirstNet hired – full-timer or contractor.   I’d publicize the unvarnished (or only slightly varnished) input received at every public meeting.  Every such piece of news – including things which are not flattering - contributes to the desirable image of continuing progress:  a juggernaut moving to fundamentally change and improve public safety in the United States.

And the staffing challenges remain enormous.   FirstNet is hiring just a few contractors who are vitally needed to evaluate RFIs, write RFPs and build a design for each state.    But it needs many more.  The names of the existing hires – as well as the roadmap or even job descriptions to hire additional staff – are shrouded in secrecy.

Overall, however, FirstNet appears to be in first gear.   Just first gear:   we’re not barreling down the public safety broadband highway yet by any means.   You crawl before you walk and run.   And it will take more staff and better plans to get into overdrive.

But at least we appear to be back on the highway.


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