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

Is FirstNet Stalled?

February 22, 2014 By Bill Schrier

Firstnet-stalledThe short answer is no.   The longer answer:  maybe

Today, February 22nd, is the second anniversary of the Spectrum Act.  Congress passed that law on February 22, 2012.    It created the First Responders’ Network Authority.   The law was the culmination of over a decade of advocacy by many public safety officials who saw the inadequacy of responder communications in the wake of disasters like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and many smaller incidents.  In these incidents cops and firefighters and paramedics and other responders found themselves unable to adequately communicate and protect the public.

FirstNet’s mission is grand:  to build the first nationwide public safety communications network for responders, especially first responders to both daily incidents and larger disasters.

Here we are, two years into the ten-year mission authorized by Congress.  It has been a slow start, and lately – over the past 6 months – FirstNet’s progress appears to have either stalled or is undergoing a reboot.

This is very frustrating for those of us in states and cities who are trying our best to evangelize and support FirstNet’s mission.  

I’m the FirstNet State Point of Contact (SPOC, commonly pronounced “spock”) here in the Other Washington on the west coast.    I’ve been speaking to groups of public officials and police chiefs and emergency managers and firefighters and other responders in Washington State about FirstNet since May, 2013.

Lately, the mood of the audiences is starting to change.   “Yeah, yeah, we’ve heard you say that before, Bill, but what’s happening now?  Where’s the beef?”

I’m starting to feel a bit like a computer software salesman pushing vaporware.    “Oh yes, that feature will be in our next release slated to come out in 2017”. So here’s my take on what’s going on Inside-the-Beltway.

1.  Here come the Bureaucrats.   There is one phrase in the Spectrum Act which causes a lot of confusion:  “There is established as an independent authority within the NTIA the ‘First Responder Network Authority’ or ‘FirstNet’” (47 USC 1424 Section 6204).

An “independent authority” “within” a long-established bureaucracy?    What the hell does that mean?

   Well, I’m sure lawyers at NTIA and the Departments of Commerce and Homeland Security and the FCC have all been spending thousands of hours trying to figure that out.

I know if I was a head bureaucrat at Commerce or NTIA that I’d interpret it as having another function (or office or directorate or whatever the bureaucratize is) within my organization.   In other words “You report to me, FirstNet. Start acting like all other NTIA offices.”

I suspect there is an epic struggle going on within the Beltway for the control of FirstNet and its $7 billion in funding.  I don’t have direct evidence, but if you look at job descriptions which have been posted, e.g. for the Chief Information Officer, they clearly stated the FirstNet CIO would report to the NTIA CIO on a dotted line and would enforce NTIA information technology policies.  We know FirstNet is subject to all Federal personnel procedures for hiring staff, issuing RFPs and doing procurements.   FirstNet Board members have publicly said it will take them a full year to develop and issue and receive RFPs.

So much for the “independent” part of that law.

paul-fitzgerald--sh2. Contract staffing.    FirstNet’s already had a scandal.   Story County, Iowa, Sheriff and FirstNet Board member Paul Fitzgerald spoke out at the April 23, 2013, Board meeting.  Sheriff Fitzgerald protested, among other things, conflicts of interest between board members and contract technical staff hired to do the real meat-and-potatoes work of designing and building the nationwide network.  

I’ve heard – but cannot verify – that some of the contract staff hired in late 2012 and 2013 were paid $300 an hour.

Now hiring contract staff for engineering and technical work at market rates is done all across the federal government.   Federal employee pay scales are compressed and have been kept low for a number of years by Congress.  So hiring outside technical staff is a prudent action.  

The allegations of Sheriff Fitzgerald go far beyond just cost, however.   They also relate to the contract vehicle used, how the staff were identified and hired, and more.   And the conflict-of-interest allegations are still open and under investigation by the Inspector General of the Department of Commerce.

But here’s the net result:   the contract under which the staff were hired expired in October, 2013.  Most of the existing 35 or so contracted staff (who were quite competent, by the way) were laid off.    Three new contracts were established in October.   But as of this writing – four months later - no technical contractors, and only a handful of public relations contractors, have been hired.

How do you create a nationwide design and individual state-specific plans for a wireless network without technical staff?

I suspect #1 above is at play here – the typical reaction of any government bureaucracy to allegations or scandal is to circle the wagons and lay on the rules, regulations, oversight, multiple approvals by multiple levels of officials.    

This doesn’t bode well for either the short-term or long-term ability of FirstNet to get the staff support it needs.

3.  Full-Time Staffing.    I think FirstNet has about 25 federal employees working for it.  Their goal, I believe, is to have 100 or more full-time staff to do the work.

Gee, two years into a $7 billion project and only 25 full-time staff have been hired!?    And, frankly, most of those folks are transfers from other federal departments such as Commerce and Homeland Security.   In the Federal personnel system, it is relatively easy to hire and transfer existing federal government employees.  

It is much harder to hire from the non-Federal staff – especially folks with on-the-ground responder experience.  Multiple interview panels and layers of human resource review, not to mention background checks and financial disclosure.

There have been a few major hires from the outside – General Manager Bill D’Agostino with commercial/Verizon background, T.J. Kennedy with Utah State patrol background, and Bill Casey formerly of the Boston Police via the FBI.   But key positions go unfilled, such as the CIO and CTO positions.

Despite the difficulties, every full-time person working at FirstNet who I personally know – no matter what their background - is very committed and competent.

But, again, #1 is at play, and at this rate it will be years before FirstNet gets its complete complement of full-time staff.

4.  Stiffing your friends.     Eight cities, regions and states around the country were funded for about $400 million under the Federal stimulus (technically the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, ARRA/BTOP, a mouthful) or similar grants to build public safety LTE networks compatible with FirstNet. 

Many of these networks were well along – Harris County (Houston) is operational.   Charlotte, North Carolina and Mississippi (statewide) were substantially deployed.  The San Francisco Bay area (BayRICS) was moving rapidly in planning and site development.

But when FirstNet was created in 2012, NTIA abruptly stopped seven of these projects, restricting their construction until FirstNet could review them and authorize them to be completed.  FirstNet started negotiations with them, but in the case of Charlotte and Mississippi, those negotiations have fallen apart and the LTE part of the networks is shut down.    Motorola, vendor on the BayRICS project, was unable to reach accord with FirstNet and gave up its BTOP grant in December, 2013.

I don’t know specifically why each of these negotiations failed.   In some cases I believe it was FirstNet’s refusal to promise to incorporate the local network into its overall nationwide plan.   In other words, FirstNet might actually overbuild the BTOP-funded network in the city, region or state.  Such an overbuild would not give the local agencies time to recoup their investments.  In other cases FirstNet refused, I think, to allow the local network the ability to expand over time and improve coverage in its geographic area, which could hamstring the use of the network by responders. Los Angeles Regional Interoperable Communications SystemEach of these jurisdictions invested considerable local funds and political capital, not to mention time and effort, into these projects.   

The projects, if completed, would have been showcases for the promise of FirstNet.    More importantly, FirstNet would have created a cadre of mayors, elected officials, Sheriffs, police chiefs, fire chiefs and others singing the praises of public safety broadband.

Maybe the states were asking too much of FirstNet.   Perhaps the lawyers got things tied into legal knots.    Maybe the business plan for funding and operating these networks wasn’t going to work under any circumstance.   All I know is that now, in these jurisdictions, there is simply bitterness over a failed effort and promise.

And there are four jurisdictions which DO have spectrum leases with FirstNet, although their timelines and deliverables are still murky.    Undoubtedly there are lessons to be learned and advocates to be created via those projects.

5.  Overpromise and under-deliver.    We’ve had a number of false starts.  At the very first Board meeting, in September, 2012, member Craig Farrill announced a “conceptual network design”.  Really?   Where was the collaboration with the public safety community before this announcement? At regional meetings in May and June 2013, FirstNet Board members were talking about coming out to states and meeting with Governors within 60 days.    Yeah, right.    In the fall of 2013 we in the states were hoping to have a lot of specifics in terms of materials and data requirements to conduct outreach and education for potential users in our states.   We’re still waiting.   Even minor things like having a viable website at www.firstnet.gov branded for local and state public safety has been promised since summer, 2013.   Today that website has still got the NTIA brand all over it, and is only minimally functional.   Gets us back to #1, I guess.

Still, I'm hopeful.

I’ve listed a whole set of concerns and issues, but I also see some positive signs. This coming week and in early March, FirstNet and NTIA staff will hold two workshops for the SPOCs and our staff in the Eastern and then the Western U. S.    We’re hoping to see a clear roadmap for the FirstNet’s ahead.    Deputy Manager T. J. Kennedy recently laid out much more detail on how the consultation with states will occur.   FirstNet has published a number of Requests for Information (RFIs) seeking a lot of information from potential vendors and others on a number of aspects of the network ranging from devices to network design to applications and apps stores (although, with the staffing shortfalls mentioned above, I’m not sure who is reading the responses).    General Manager Bill D’Agostino says his plan for the year ahead “will make your head spin”.

There are hundreds of us out here, FirstNet, who still believe in you, believe in the mission, and want to help make it happen.


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Nobody Elected Me

January 12, 2014 By Bill Schrier

One of my philosophies, working as a senior level public official in a local or state government, is that the boss - the elected official - is always right.     

Most State, City, County and other non-federal CIOs either work for a city/county manager or for a Governor or Mayor.   That official is the "boss".     We give the boss our best advice, but if they decide to do something different, then I invoke "nobody elected me".    In other words the elected official is responsible to the citizens and constituents of the city, county or state.    And that elected official will receive a report card every two or four years in the form of an election.   If the electorate doesn't like the way the government is running, they’ll make their wishes known at the ballot box  The Mayor or Governor was elected to make the decisions, not me.  

I’ve got two reasons for writing this blog post.   The first one is to try and reflect upon the stupidity of what happened in New Jersey in September.  The second reason is to demonstrate how "nobody elected me" plays out in information technology.  

Nobody Elected Me in New Jersey  

One potential issue with the "nobody elected me" philosophy is ethics.  

If I recommended a course of action, and my boss decided to do something different - and his decision was either unethical or illegal, what would I do?    There is really only one answer to this quandary:   it is my duty to resign.   Such instances are, thankfully, far and few between. 

One of my heroes is Bill Ruckelshaus, who resigned as deputy United States Attorney General.   He resigned rather than carry out an order from then-President Richard Nixon to fire the special prosecutor in the Watergate affair.  

As any reader probably knows, staff members of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie ordered the closure of all-but-one traffic lane on an approach to the George Washington Bridge in early September, 2013.  Governor Christie was conducting a campaign for re-election, and the closure was apparently ordered to "punish" the Mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey.  

If you were an employee of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and you were actually ordered to set up the traffic cones and shut down traffic for no apparent reason, what should you do?   Refuse to obey the order?    On what grounds?  

I can't judge the employees of the Port Authority because I don’t know what they (or their supervisors or their managers or their directors) were thinking as the traffic cones went into place and all hell broke loose for three days of traffic on that bridge.    Perhaps they invoked "Nobody Elected Me" or "the boss is always right".   Perhaps they feared to question the order in order to preserve their jobs.    Somebody in New Jersey government, however, should have been asking questions in September, not now in January, 2014.

Nobody Elected Me and Information Technology  

"Nobody elected me" is useful when explaining otherwise inexplicable decisions to technology department employees.  

For many IT employees, the "right" decision often appears to be obvious.   

Many such employees don’t see the nuances of political reality (especially when it comes to funding).  

A few years ago, when I was CTO of the City of Seattle, I reported to Mayor Greg Nickels.   Mayor Nickels and I and a third department head - responsible for the central customer service at the City - jointly decided a 311 system was needed in Seattle.  

311 seems enormously logical to me.   What phone number do you call if you see a fire or are having a bicycle accident (like I did) - 911, of course.   But what number do you call if you want to report a backed-up sewer or you want to complain about taxi service or your cable bill?    In some forward-thinking cities like Chicago and New York and Louisville that number is 311.    But in Seattle you search through six pages of 8 point font in the phone book (if you even have a phone book) or search a website (if you have Internet access) to find some incomprehensible number.   

That sort of stupidity made no sense to me as CTO and it made no sense to Mayor Nickels.  

Alas, the Seattle City Council didn't see it quite that way, and rejected Mayor Nickels' proposal because they didn't see a need equal to the $9 million cost to implement.  

I’m convinced the problem in Seattle was lack of Council member districts.   All nine Seattle City council members are full-time members and all are elected at large.   In that situation citizens don’t know which council member to call to complain about something, so they end up calling the Mayor.    The Mayor and his staff "feel the pain" of citizen complaints and see the need for a 311 number and system.  City council members don't.  

But the electorate has recently spoken.   Two months ago, in November, 2013, Seattle constitutents voted to start electing council members by district.    When that law takes effect in two years, council members will start feeling the pain of citizens in their district complaining and will, I think, be much more supportive of 311.  

Yup, nobody elected me, but there’s always an alternative path to the goal.


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Lee Harvey Oswald and 9/11

November 21, 2013 By Bill Schrier

lho_lee_harvey_oswald_as_boyLee Harvey Oswald robbed my parents of their youth.

In a similar way, 9/11 and the destruction of the World Trade Centers may have robbed the rest of us (even those of us in now in our 60s) of our youth.

When Oswald killed John F. Kennedy, he also killed – or at least damaged – the "youthful outlook" of the "Greatest Generation" – those who had survived the Great Depression and put their young lives on hold to fight World War II.   That generation – which included my parents – came back to peacetime, after WWII, and immediately married, had kids (lots of kids – the Baby Boomers) and became engaged in work and business.  

This generation saw Kennedy as a hero.   He was, indeed, a bonafide war hero from PT-109.  But he also had an eloquence and a youthful outlook on the world symbolized by his goal to put a man on the moon and his speeches including "ask not what you can do for your country …".

Oswald killed all that.

And afterward, of course, my own generation would not "trust anyone over 30";  the nation became bogged down in the Vietnam War;  and my parents suddenly became "old fogies".  Bill Flanagan on CBS Sunday Morning eloquently described the disillusionment which followed November 22, 1963.

Something similar occurred, I fear, after September 11, 2013.   

For over 230 years, the United States survived on isolationism.  We were separated from Europe and Asia by vast oceans as well as centuries in time.  The United States was the "young democracy" on the globe.  Sure, we lived in fear of nuclear Armageddon during the Cold War.   But "bombs dropping invisibly from the sky" is an abstract concept.  And, of course, that nuclear war never happened.

September 11, 2001, changed all that.

The war came to our shores. Americans died – by the thousands – in Manhattan.

And, I think, to a great extent, the "youthful outlook" of the generations who lived through and remember 9/11 died also.

Now we have a National Security Agency which tracks our phone calls and our social media and probably tracks our email and web browsing.   We’ve built a giant security apparatus worthy of George Orwell’s 1984.  Our drones strike at people around the world.   We fear the Chinese have completely cyber-infiltrated our government systems and private businesses.  Every time we go through a TSA line at an airport we are personally reminded that terrorists live among us.   We’ve wasted trillions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives (including the lives of the dismembered) on foreign wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.   Every month another mass-shooting born of mental illness and despair seems to occur. And we are constantly reminded that our passwords are not secure, our financial information is not secure, and our very identities may be stolen.

I have great cause for hope, as well.  There’s a whole generation growing up now who do NOT remember 9/11.  The wars are winding down (although the debt they left us has not).  We've got a vigorous non-profit sector of hackers (in the good sense of the term) who are building applications from open source and demanding open government data.   A whole set of technologies is sprouting which will enrich our lives:   network-connected glasses, autonomous vehicles, tablet and smartphone computers, and other wonders yet to be unveiled.

Lee Harvey Oswald robbed a generation of its youth. 

9/11 robbed more generations of our youth. 

Can our next generation perhaps live out its dreams?


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My Love-Hate Thing with Ballmer's Microsoft

October 16, 2013 By Bill Schrier

Microsoft Kin One and Kin TwoToday (October 17) is the debut of the "real" Windows 8, thank goodness. And a perfect time for reflections on my love/hate affair with Microsoft.

I love Microsoft. I envy Steve Ballmer's hairline. Microsoft Office is the greatest thing since the invention of the personal computer. I love Office so much I refuse to buy a tablet computer (iPad, Galaxy, Note, Surface RT) because almost none of those plastic/glass doo-dads will run my favorite programs - Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Publisher and OneNote. Microsoft employs 40,000 people in my hometown area of Seattle, which vastly improves the quality of life here. Microsofties leave the company to found their own startup companies which makes for a really exciting technology scene - just ask Todd Bishop or John Cook at Geekwire. I love the X-Box 360 and I love Microsoft Research with products like web-based translation. And the Kinect is leading us into the future of gesture-based computing.

I love Microsoft so much I say "bing it" when others say "google it".

BallmerI hate Microsoft. Steve Ballmer laughed at the first iPhone because it didn't have a keyboard. His answer: the "Kin" twins which lasted one month. Microsoft completely missed the tablet revolution, until it finally, three years after the iPad, came out with the Surface RT with zero apps and almost complete incompatibility with everything else in tech.

Windows 8 and its Metro interface is a travesty.  What were Ballmer and his brain trust thinking when they rolled out Windows 8? They urinated off on every Enterprise and Enterprise desktop user of Windows, a billion or more users in all.

There is zero zip nada which is nice about Windows 8 and the #@%! "metro" interface for folks using a keyboard and mouse. I resisted buying a Windows 8 computer because I don't have a touch screen and I knew it would be tough learning to use Win8, but I had no idea how bad until now, when I actually have to use it. Finding simple stuff like the control panel is a monstrous chore, as are other simple tasks such as closing a Metro window for Adobe reader. How the hell do you "swipe up" with a mouse? Half the time the "charms" never appear when using a mouse.

I could go on-and-on but I'm totally baffled why Microsoft would spend all this time and effort on a new, touch-screen optimized OS when their bread-and-butter is enterprise customers using desktop computers with no touchscreen.

Does Steve Ballmer have a death-wish for his company?

Even folks who use touchscreens spend little time in Metroland and most of their time on the "traditional" desktop interface, if they can find it. There are plenty of rants about this on the web of course, too, including ones on microsoft.com

I could go back and forth all day with my love/hate of Microsoft and its products:

  • Love Windows Phone 8 smartphones.
  • Woulda bought one when I ditched my Blackberry in May, 2012, but only Windows Phone 7 was available and that hardware was NOT upgradeable to version 8. Had to get an iPhone instead, unfortunately.
  • Love all the apps available for Windows desktop computers.
  • Hate all the apps not available for the Surface and Windows Phone.
  • Love tablet computing - I used a Gateway tablet running Windows for years starting in about 2003, and my 3.75 year old kid uses a gen 1 iPad all the time.
  • Hate Ballmer and Microsoft's failure of vision to miss the whole smartphone and tablet computer revolution. Especially since Microsoft partners HAD tablet computers using Windows XP and developed the Surface tabletop computer.
  • Love all the power of the Internet with websites, web apps, open data and all the rest.
  • Hate that Microsoft basically missed the whole Internet revolution, brought us stuff like Front Page and Silverlight and MSN, and is playing catch-up ever since.
  • Love that the entire world uses Windows desktop computers and Office as THE standard for productive computing. So much so that some of those cities and places which have converted to gmail and Google apps are regretting that decision (i.e. Los Angeles).
  • Hate Microsoft running after consumers with the ill-fated Zune and poor Windows 8 implementation, dissing their cash-cow livelihood: Enterprise customers.

Redmond sign - how about software?So after all the harping and carping on my favorite hometown company (although Boeing and Amazon are actively competing for that "favorite" spot), do I have some advice for my friends and their new CEO in Redmond? You bet.

  • Keep your Enterprise friends happy. You do a good job serving corporate America, governments and businesses. Don't screw them with crap like Windows 8. (Fingers crossed for a decent Windows 8.1).
  • Microsoft Research is great at innovating. Use them. For just one example, capitalize on Kinect gesture-based computing. Actively encourage people to link Kinect to all sorts of other tech from computers to TVs to cars.
  • Continue to develop the Xbox into the all-purpose home device for entertainment and personal business. · Concentrate on voice. Voice control of computers will leapfrog the touchscreen interface. I spend a lot of time in my car - I'd love it if my smartphone could read me my email and text messages allow me to compose tweets and Word documents, all by talking to it. Voice would allow my 3.75 year to say "I want to watch Caillou" and her tablet would start Netflix and ask her "Do you want Caillou the Chef" which it knows is her favorite.
  • Embrace the "internet of things". Over the next 20 years, sensors will be deployed everywhere - electrical grid, roadways, autonomous vehicles, medical patients, appliances, even toilets and toasters. Myriad opportunities exist in this space, starting with just crunching and making sense of all that data.

Microsoft, I love you. I desperately want you to succeed. Please stop shooting yourself (and your customers) in the foot.


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Is FirstNet Open and Transparent?

September 25, 2013 By Bill Schrier

Is FirstNet Transparent?The answer is "no" … and "yes".

FirstNet is the First Responder Network Authority. FirstNet was created by Congress in February, 2012, and authorized to spend up to $7 billion to build a nationwide public safety wireless network. A Board of 15 members was appointed in August, 2012, to begin the work.

In April, 2013, one board member, Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald raised concerns about lack of transparency in the work of the Board. The FirstNet Board convened a special review committee to look at Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald's concerns that FirstNet was not being open in the way it conducted its meetings, hired its staff and operated in general.

I have no special expertise or thoughts regarding Sheriff Fitzgerald's concerns as expressed in his April, 2013, resolution, or the report of the special review committee announced on September 23rd.

But I do have specific concerns of my own and suggestions for the FirstNet Board and staff.

Suggestion: Be more open about your meetings.

Some board meetings are open and announced, although the agendas are not published very far in advance. But other meetings of the full board clearly happen and are NOT announced in advance, and I’ve never seen announcement of committee meetings or weekly board teleconference calls.

One example: FirstNet had an open meeting on Tuesday, June 4th in Colorado. Many people were there for a PSCR meeting at the same time. But, unbeknownst to most of us, the Board actually had an all-day meeting the day before, June 3rd, when they reviewed and essentially approved a fiscal year 2014 budget! During the open meeting they constantly referred back to the Monday meeting which was both closed and unannounced. It was hard to follow the open meeting due to phrases like “as we discussed yesterday”. Oh yeah? What did you discuss yesterday?

I suggest FirstNet should announce EVERY board meeting and EVERY board committee meeting, and, at least in general, what the subject matter is.

We all understand some meetings will have to be closed for budgetary and personnel matters. But EVERY meeting, even the closed ones, should be announced and the subject, at least, should be public.

And when the open meetings actually happen, make them like city council or state legislative meetings - in a large open room where there is plenty of space for an audience. Allow some "public comment" before or after. And not just for press, but for many of the rest of us who are interested in FirstNet work.

Oh, and, by the way, does FirstNet know that a meeting held at 10AM Eastern Time is 7AM Pacific Time, 6AM Alaska time and 5AM Hawaii time?

Finally, it is commendable that FirstNet webcasts video of its meetings and accepts questions via the phone, then quickly publishes a verbatim transcript. But I suggest getting a professional service with good microphones and cameras to improve the quality of those broadcasts.

Suggestion: Publish a directory of staff names, responsibilities and contact information.

FirstNet has been decently good about announcing its hires. When FirstNet staff come to meetings in person, they are quite open and approachable. T. J. Kennedy

For example, I chaired a meeting of city, county and State CIOs at the APCO annual conference in Anaheim in August, 2013. Deputy General Manager T. J. Kennedy came into the meeting and gave his business card to each of us, spoke at length, answered questions and interacted quite well with the group.

I applaud this openness.

But there's no website which shows the FirstNet organization and the names and contact information. (The org chart itself is buried in a PowerPoint someplace online.)

Much worse is transparency on contractors.

Again, I’ve interacted with a few of FirstNet’s contracted staff. They are knowledgeable and professional on the phone and at meetings. They listen, interact and are genuinely committed to FirstNet’s mission. In person and on the phone they are quite willing to give out their contact information.

But many of us involved at the state and private level have been approached by people who say they are FirstNet contractors - and they are, I guess, but how would we know? Where's the "index" or website listing all the contractor names and their responsibilities?

Perhaps there’s some fear that if all that contact information is on a public website, the staff will be inundated with phone calls and email messages, but I think most of us on the outside will be more respectful about that.

And a small suggestion: anyone involved with FirstNet should have a signature block which includes their name, title and contact info attached to the email messages they send.

Suggestion: Be more open when contractors are hired.

Just like when full-time staff are hired, couldn’t FirstNet make some announcements or tweet or something to tell the community that a new contractor is on board? Tell us a little about their background and qualifications. Tell us how they fit into FirstNet's overall planning and work.

We all understand that contractors are hired for various reasons and from various sources. Often a board member or another contractor or a full-time FirstNet staff person knows someone they've worked with in the past who has certain skills, and they are hired on that basis. That's fine.

When I've hired people I always looked for people who were known to be competent or referred by my existing staff and employees. A secondary benefit is the existing staff became invested in the success of the new hire.

Especially at the beginning, but even now, FirstNet contractor hires appeared to be all people almost exclusively with private company cellular technology expertise. Some of the first hires had little or no experience with LTE. It was (and still is) a mystery as to how they were hired, by what mechanism, and what their connection or expertise/background is. The lack of transparency here certainly contributes to the feeling that the effort is being managed or railroaded in a certain direction.

Be open about all this. It will only add credibility to these key individuals and the role they are each playing.

I’ll give a specific example. Brian Kassa was a senior LTE engineer with Nokia Siemens. He joined FirstNet’s technical team as a contractor a few months ago. One of his duties is interacting with State government teams. I’ve known Brian for a few years and he actually is a responder working on a search-and-rescue team near Seattle. He’s an outstanding engineer, very committed to the effort. But you’d never know he’s working on this effort from looking at websites or other public documents/announcements from FirstNet.

If FirstNet trumpets hires like Brian, they will build their own credibility as an organization which hires good people and is moving quickly to design the network.

Suggestion: Appoint some more advisory committees

The Spectrum Act requires just one advisory committee – a public safety advisory committee or PSAC. That committee has been appointed. But it is somewhat of a mystery as to what charge that committee has, when it meets and what’s on the agenda for the meetings. Notes and minutes of the meetings are not publicly available.

Now, most of that information is available if you know someone on the PSAC. And the PSAC Chair, Harlin McEwen, is one of the very best at quick responses to email and being open to talking on the phone.

But I’d suggest FirstNet allow the PSAC to be much more open and public with what it is doing, including staffing it to allow it to do more work and have meetings which are more open. Create a special section on http://www.firsnet.gov for the PSAC.

I’d suggest FirstNet consider appointing some additional advisory committees – which are allowed under the law – to increase the amount of input it gets and its openness. Specifically there could be a commercial advisory committee of potential vendors and manufacturers.

There also could be a committee which directly includes the state governments upon which FirstNet will depend upon to build its network and its user base. Another committee might include secondary responders such as public and private utilities, transportation and transit departments.

Again, the idea here is to improve FirstNet’s outreach to this potential user base. A secondary effect of the additional committees is getting more people involved - and therefore committed - to the overall effort. Yes, all of this will take staffing and money. But small investments today will pay big dividends (I think) when FirstNet is marketing its new network and services. 

Suggestion: Get a decent website with calendar of events

I think that’s self-explanatory, if you look at the present website. I understand this new website is in the works, promised “within a month” as of this writing. But gee folks, the Board was announced in August, 2012, and there are hundreds of great web design firms out there. Does it take 13 months to get a decent website?

Having a comprehensive, easy-to-use website demonstrates FirstNet’s commitment to transparency.

The website also needs to include a decent calendar of events. Presently there is a calendar of speaking events on the existing website, but NOT a calendar of FirstNet meetings or events.

Here’s a specific example. Kevin McGinnis is the Board member responsible for tribal outreach and has done a good job trying to contact as many tribal officials as possible. FirstNet originally set a meeting of tribal officials for August 26th for Washington DC, which then was pushed back to October and is now November 4th. Nowhere on any website or other document (as far as I know) has this meeting been announced. It is all word of mouth or, presumably, email messages to a group of tribal officials (I’ve never seen such emails, however).

Suggestion: Get your own lawyers.

After the Spectrum Act passed, a lot of attorneys made a lot of money interpreting it.

The FCC, NTIA and DHS all had their staff attorneys go over it with a fine tooth comb, and I suspect there was a little bit of infighting as roles and responsibilities were sorted out.

It seems that, in some cases, the FirstNet Board and staff let the lawyers tell them what they can and cannot do. I suspect that’s what going on in the spectrum leases with the 8 jurisdictions who have money and had FCC waivers to build their own networks. Here it is, 18 months after those jurisdictions were told by NTIA they couldn’t spend grant funds on LTE equipment, and only two of them have a spectrum lease allowing them to proceed on their networks. Elected officials, Mayors, Governors, Legislators, City Councils, police and fire chiefs supported these 8 efforts to build locally, and this long delay (both NTIA's delay and the slowness in spectrum lease negotiations) has made some of them wary of FirstNet.   I believe some of that delay has to do with the lawyers who are advising FirstNet that it cannot spend money on these pilots or otherwise has to restrict them. Such lawyers are (in my opinion) taking the most conservative possible interpretation of the law and what it allows or doesn’t allow with these early builders.

What I’ve written in the previous couple of paragraphs is speculative, of course, because FirstNet has NOT been transparent about what the real issues are in the spectrum lease negotiations.

The 8 early builders represent a tremendous opportunity for FirstNet to be entrepreneurial and test out a number of different models in the real world of public safety. The user stories from these 8 sites can help cement and improve public safety’s (and general government’s) support for FirstNet.

When I ran the information technology department of Seattle’s City government, I had city attorney’s ADVISE me on contracts, risks and other matters. But in the end it was the attorney's ADVICE and it was up to me to make the decisions and take some risks to move government forward with technology.

It seems like the commercial members of the FirstNet Board should be quite familiar with this entrepreneurial model. Perhaps they should say to the lawyers “thank you for the advice” but take some risks to get these 8 early builders going and make them successful.

Suggestions: Outreach

Jeff Johnson and Craig Farrill have been outstanding “on the road” speaking and obtaining input about the project. They’ve been open. They’ve demonstrated the ability to listen. They know there are huge challenges ahead and they’ve been transparent about them. See, for example, page 22 of Jeff's report to the board here.

But FirstNet also understands (or needs to understand) that only a tiny fraction of their potential stakeholders know anything at all about the project, and most of the public – especially the technology-knowledgeable public – knows even less. If you don’t think so, just read the comments in this Ars Technica article about FirstNet.

I just hope the outreach teams hired full time have the same sort of ability to listen and honesty which Jeff and Craig have displayed.

Closing: FirstNet has a great natural wellspring of support. More openness will capitalize on it.

Over the last four or five years, there was a huge campaign which generated public safety support for assigning the D block to public safety and to pass the Spectrum Act which created FirstNet. Indeed, I’ll often go to 911 centers or first responder departments here in Washington State to talk about the upcoming nationwide public safety wireless broadband network, and people will say – “that’s the D block, right”?

This support is a major untapped resource for FirstNet.

First responders, especially, want to see this work succeed. But, in addition, most of the associations and organizations comprising the old PSST (Public Safety Spectrum Trust) plus many telecommunications carriers, manufacturers, consultants and others have a long-term vested interest in the success of FirstNet’s mission.

FirstNet, be open about what you’re doing. Embrace all these stakeholders, especially courageous, concerned folks like Sheriff Fitzgerald. Ask them for advice and support. Reach out to the larger potential user base - transportation, public works, utilities, railroads, small telephone companies and others.

Being open, transparent and welcoming today will not only help you build the network tomorrow, but will also stand you in good stead as the inevitable bumps occur on your road to success.


Caution: This statement represents the personal views of Bill Schrier, and does not reflect the views or opinions of any governmental or non-governmental association with which I’m affiliated. There may be inadvertent inaccuracies in the material presented above, and, if there are, contact me and I’ll fix them.


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