GAO: FirstNet Buildout on Track, Contract Oversight Should Be More Transparent
Tuesday, January 28, 2020 | Comments

AT&T is meeting or on track to meet all nationwide, contractual network coverage and adoption milestones for the nationwide public-safety broadband network, but public-safety officials expressed frustration with the lack of transparency and information from First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) officials, according to a new federal oversight report.

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report said FirstNet staff should share more about its contract oversight of AT&T and other information with state officials and other stakeholders to gain support. Two of GAO’s four recommendations revolved around providing more information to public-safety stakeholders.

Numerous public-safety officials GAO interviewed were dissatisfied with the level or quality of information received from FirstNet, noting that FirstNet had communicated little to no information on AT&T's progress or FirstNet's oversight. The term “numerous” was used if 20 or more stakeholders expressed the view, a footnote in the report said.

FirstNet state single points of contacts (SPOC), in particular, were dissatisfied with the lack of transparency surrounding the contractual requirements or FirstNet’s oversight to date. The state officials said the level of communications shared by FirstNet after the contract award was starkly different than the level of engagement prior to a state’s opt-in decision, the report said.

FirstNet officials told GAO there is no contractual requirement to share performance information or monitoring results with stakeholders or network users, but its advocacy team interfaces with the public-safety community and conducts “considerable outreach to stakeholders.”

GAO said the 2012 legislation that created FirstNet requires consultation to occur in developing requests for proposals “and otherwise carrying out its responsibilities,” which suggests a broader application than just the planning stages. The report said while there are valid concerns about disclosing proprietary AT&T information, FirstNet has opportunities to communicate more details to public safety.

“By not communicating additional information and reporting on monitoring results, FirstNet could be unknowingly reinforcing nascent skepticism of the program overall and of itself as the entity charged with holding AT&T accountable,” the report said.

GAO said the contract requires AT&T to report, by state, on the state-specific commitments made as a result of the opt-in process. “Portions of this report are to be shareable with states, and it is to detail the deadline by which the commitments will be fulfilled, the status of fulfilling them, and include evidence of the state’s satisfaction with progress,” the report said.

Two such state-specific commitment reports were due in July, and only one has been completed by AT&T and accepted by FirstNet. The report was not shared with the states, FirstNet officials said.

In its four recommendations, GAO said FirstNet’s CEO should identify additional program information, including FirstNet’s oversight and monitoring activities, that can be shared with public-safety stakeholders and communicate this information to them. GAO also recommended FirstNet share relevant portions of the accepted state-specific commitment reports with the states, as specified in the contract.

“The FirstNet Authority engages with public safety at all levels of government — local, tribal, state and federal — to ensure the FirstNet network is meeting their needs,” a FirstNet spokesperson said in response to questions about how FirstNet plans to share additional oversight and other information with stakeholders in the future. “Since approval of the state plans, we have coordinated with the states and territories to update stakeholders on the network’s progress in their state.

“The FirstNet Authority has accepted the GAO’s recommendations to further enhance the FirstNet Authority’s contract oversight and stakeholder outreach processes and is currently working to implement them as part of our public-safety engagement program.

“In its report, the GAO also found that AT&T is meeting — or is on track to meet — all nationwide, contractual network coverage and adoption milestones for FirstNet. This is a result of the rigorous oversight mechanisms, as GAO acknowledged, that the FirstNet Authority uses to oversee AT&T and the deployment of the network. We look forward to continuing to deliver for public safety.”

Indeed, the report said FirstNet has met its first coverage milestone and received about $1.2 billion of the $6.5 billion contract total from FirstNet. AT&T is also on track to meet the next milestone of 80% of band 14 coverage due in March, and FirstNet was completing final verification and validation activities as of September. In December, AT&T said 75% of band 14 coverage had been rolled out.

The report notes that at its final operating capability, the FirstNet network using band 14 spectrum will not cover the entire country. However, public-safety users have access to AT&T's non-band 14 Long Term Evolution (LTE) commercial spectrum as well.

The report said AT&T is also on track to meet its first adoption milestone by its end-March deadline. FirstNet uses device connections as a proxy for adoption and set monthly targets that build up to the nationwide connections expected by March. To be counted for the first milestone, four criteria must be met, including accessing the network; be quality of service, priority and pre-emption capable; provide a public-safety service; and be certified for use by AT&T and FirstNet, a footnote said. A fifth criteria of using a FirstNet circuit card as defined in the contract is required for future adoption milestones.

Coverage and adoption targets vary by state, which is allowable as the key milestones are nationwide, the report said.

In terms of oversight, FirstNet tracks compliance in 13 performance areas and tracks 46 specific elements across these areas. As of April, FirstNet had issued one corrective action report since awarding the contract.

For coverage, FirstNet verified and validated AT&T’s coverage-prediction maps to ensure they were an acceptable representation of coverage in the field. FirstNet then confirmed that the on-air coverage as compared to the expected total coverage at the network’s final operating capability met the contractual requirement. However, FirstNet’s methodology didn’t include conducting its own coverage tests in the field.

Many public-safety officials told GAO about instances when AT&T maps depicted more coverage than actually existed or were insufficiently granular for their mission. "Many" refers to 10 to 19 officials, the report said. Numerous officials had concerns about misleading or disorganized sales tactics from AT&T representatives.

While many of FirstNet’s contract-oversight mechanisms generally align with key practices, GAO found that FirstNet lacked a reliable master schedule to review and recommended that FirstNet take steps to ensure the integrated master schedule is developed and maintained in accordance with GAO’s best practices.

The fourth and final recommendation found that FirstNet and AT&T should identify and obtain periodic indicators on end users’ satisfaction to gauge performance quality.

“The FirstNet Authority agrees with GAO’s recommendations and will take appropriate additional steps to apply lessons learned and address GAO concern,” said a letter from Jeff Bratcher, FirstNet chief technology and operations officer, responding to the report.

GAO's assessment included about 40 interviews with public-safety professionals. GAO said the report is a public version of a sensitive report that the agency issued in December 2019. Information that FirstNet deemed proprietary in that report was omitted in the public report.

Sens. Roger Wicker and John Thune asked the GAO to review FirstNet's progress and oversight. The full report is here.

The first GAO report on FirstNet was in 2017.

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Comments
On 1/29/20, Leon van der Linde said:
It is a cellphone network? You should not expect the same coverage as you received from a radio network. The technology and protocols are vastly different. Unless they completely redesign the cellphone network, the reliability should be a major concern.


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