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Following the mid-October announcement from pdvWireless, one of the three acknowledged competitors in the process, that it had been eliminated from consideration, hope remained that a final choice was coming soon. Nov.1, the targeted date, came and went without such news.
FirstNet leadership advised that a delay in the announcement was in order, saying that making the right choice was more important than meeting an arbitrary schedule. Another month came and went, with court documents revealing that Rivada Mercury, another publicly acknowledged competitor in the process, also was eliminated from consideration. With the Rivada protest, the final selection process of a national network provider landed on the “Go directly to jail, do not pass go, do not collect $200” square.
To the surprise of many engaged in the discussion related to the creation of a NPSBN for years, FirstNet has created an unexpectedly effective cone of silence that began with the release of its request for proposals (RFP) and has continued to this date. It is indeed rare in the world of Washington big-ticket procurements that any similar entity has been able to so effectively keep its business this insulated.
Morgan O’Brien, vice chairman of pdvWireless, said that while his company’s elimination from the process was devastating, it was based on a sound professional and thorough process. Rivada Mercury, on the other hand, claimed that its elimination was arbitrary and capricious. The only other acknowledged competitor in the process is a consortium headed by AT&T, which subsequently entered the legal fray to defend what is perceived to be its defense as the last man standing in the selection process.
Now enter the departments of Justice (DOJ), the Interior (DOI) and Commerce (DOC). With the filing of the Rivada protest, it is difficult to perceive that FirstNet will be postured to make an announcement related to its choice of a network partner until February at the earliest. Given the magnitude of the $7 billion award, and given the nature of federal bureaucracy, it is difficult to see February as a realistic target date for a contract award to any vendor.
This is bad news for a public-safety community that has been waiting almost five years since passage of enabling legislation to see some viable path to realization of a drastically needed broadband network. Moreover, what realistic consideration should be given to the pending change in presidential administration? In the near term — the February protest hearing date — changes will potentially and likely impact federal players holding key positions at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and as FirstNet board members. The 15-member FirstNet board includes three federal members, one each from the departments of Homeland Security and Justice, along with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Most, if not all, of these positions are filled with individuals high enough up the food chain to be considered politically based positions.
While no one yet has insights as to changes that will come through pending appointments in key government offices, there is little doubt that the incoming Republican administration will have different perspectives on key projects, including FirstNet. This is all speculative but certainly keeps with previous changes in administrations. As new appointees find their new offices and paths to the department cafeterias, how long will it take for these appointees to get up to speed and provide direction for the protest process?
At the congressional level, one should not forget the key role the House Republicans played in the final rounds of debates of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 that created FirstNet. While the House Commerce Committee has been willing to sit on the sidelines the past four years and there has been solid praise for FirstNet Chairwoman Sue Swensen and President TJ Kennedy, one should at least consider the possibility that patience may be wearing thin. That said, there is a new sheriff in town for the House Commerce Committee with Rep. Greg Walden’s appointment as chairman of the committee. What direction Congress takes is as well defined as most other policy decisions pending installation of the new administration. If one assumes — and that is all that anyone can do at this point — that AT&T is the only potential candidate left to build the NPSBN, an interesting question may rise as to the viability of AT&T to focus on the projected and pending year-long regulatory and congressional fight for its $80 billion Time Warner acquisition and the simultaneous rapid deployment of a NPSBN. Whether regulatory and congressional leaders question the wisdom or viability of taking on these two huge efforts simultaneously is yet to be determined.
As noted, FirstNet has proven masterful in its ability to keep procurement discussions well out of the public domain. As such, my thoughts should not be construed as projections of what will be but instead what may be. Unfortunately, the only reality that can be noted at this point is that the public-safety community faces more uncertainty and an undetermined path forward.
After a 30-year career in public safety, Joe Hanna now serves as a consultant to the wireless industry in matters related to public policy and regulatory affairs. He is a fellow in the Radio Club of America (RCA), a senior fellow for the Center for Digital Government, and a life member and past president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) International. Hanna is a member of the editorial advisory board of MissionCritical Communications magazine.