Senate Hearing Highlights FirstNet Concerns from States, Inspector General
Tuesday, June 21, 2016 | Comments

A National Governors Association (NGA) employee and a Department of Commerce (DoC) Office of Inspector General (OIG) official outlined concerns their organizations have with the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) during a Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation and the Internet hearing June 21. The concerns are mostly related to cost and coverage.

Jeffrey McLeod, director of the NGA Homeland Security and Public Safety Division Center for Best Practices, said governors’ main concerns lie in three areas — coverage, cost and consultations. He also said opting out of the network is a “false choice” for many states.

McLeod said the unknowns of how FirstNet will achieve its rural coverage goals and the costs of achieving that coverage are concerning to governors. “Beyond user fees, governors seek further assurance that states will not incur unforeseen costs from FirstNet down the road,” he said.

He said that FirstNet staff has done a good job of consulting with states and answering questions, but some state officials are concerned about the “tone of this engagement.” FirstNet refers to states as “constituents” instead of “partners.”

McLeod said once a state receives its state plan, there is no way to suggest or make revisions. “In a true partnership, the states would be more involved in that,” he said.

“We’ve submitted all the state data, and we’re expecting the vendor community to respond with how they will address it,” said Mike Poth, FirstNet CEO. “We will then give the plans to the states so they can understand it. There are opportunities for feedback but there will be limitations because it will already be under a contract.”

McLeod also noted that there will be a transition in leadership after the November elections, presenting a communications and education challenge for FirstNet.

He said opting out would be a difficult choice. “Though there are a number of unknowns associated with opting in, very few states are in a position to consider taking on the unknowable and likely significant financial liabilities associated with building, operating, maintaining and upgrading a full radio access network (RAN) in their states if they opt out,” he said.

Andrew Katsaros, principal assistant inspector general for audit and evaluation with the DoC OIG, outlined three areas for ongoing risks for FirstNet — acquisition management, consultations with states and internal control. He said the three areas must be addressed between now and the launch of the network in mid-2018. He noted the aggressive timeline of the acquisition process and the importance of avoiding conflicts of interest.

“FirstNet must continue to strengthen its internal controls,” Katsaros said. “We have identified control weaknesses. FirstNet has responded appropriately and has begun to implement change.”

Poth said the controls in place allow FirstNet to be successful with the partnership going forward, and FirstNet’s decision making is sound.

Maj. Gen. Arthur J. Logan, Hawaii single point of contact (SPOC) and Hawaii adjutant general, praised FirstNet’s state consultation process and outlined the many times FirstNet staff has traveled to Hawaii to understand the state’s needs.

Several senators from rural states, including Cory Gardner from Colorado, asked pointed questions about coverage. “In Colorado, their data was submitted, and the vendor is aware of it,” Poth said. “What we expect back is how the vendor proposes to address that. We continue to work with all the states, and we are committed to maximize the value. We are envisioning excess revenues to invest back into the network and to advance technology. It might not be day one where a state gets everything they want.”

Sen. Steve Daines from Montana asked Poth how FirstNet plans to ensure its prime contractor partners with rural companies for coverage. “Once we have a contract award, we’ll have coverage milestones, and those become measureable,” Poth said. “We’ve tried to incentivize throughout the contract [to hit coverage milestones] but there are disincentives in the contract if they don’t.”

When responding to questions, Katsaros said FirstNet is well within its limits for administrative spending. “They have been trending at less than $10 million,” he said. “That is within the limits.”

Poth also said some of the original federal processes that bogged down FirstNet in the past have improved, although there is still room for improvement. He noted the cumbersome review process for FirstNet’s annual report to Congress as one example.

Sen. Roger Wicker, chairman of the subcommittee, summarized the testimony from Katsaros and McLeod as expressing some doubts about FirstNet coming together. “In a lot of ways, FirstNet is still a start-up organization and they have encountered all the challenges that a start-up would encounter,” Katsaros said. “They have addressed them, and that’s important. The schedule is aggressive, and there are a lot of variables to fall in place for this to be successful.”

McLeod said the nation’s governors are committed to seeing FirstNet be successful. “This is unprecedented in its size and scope, and there are cost models, user fees and long-term operational costs that states haven’t anticipated right now,” he said. “Until they get that state plan at the end of this year, they will hold back and see if they want to opt in or opt out.”

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Comments
On 7/14/17, Mark Skeet said:
I'm interested in how they are going to convince first responders that AT&T Wireless' network in Hawaii is up to the task given that most locals know who has te best coverage where.

On 6/22/16, Ken said:
Hmmm ... I wonder if the FirstNet folks visited Iowa or Arkansas the same number of times they visited Hawaii. Who approved those expense reports?

On 6/22/16, Bill Collinson said:
It seems to be an easy prediction that tension between more rural states and those with large, urban populations will increase over FirstNet. States with large, urban centers stand to gain the most operationally from the promise of FirstNet, but will complain about subsidizing the rural coverage. Conversely, the rural states are years away from meaningful coverage but will still bear significant, and so far very unpredictable, expense from participation in FirstNet.

It highlights that while great in concept, the reality of implementing a federally funded and managed nationwide public-safety network is staggeringly difficult.

Were I a governor of any state, I would certainly be asking my public safety stakeholders how they think the state can best hedge its bet because success of FirstNet is far from guaranteed.

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