Industry Complains of Lack of FirstNet Public-Safety Input (1/28/13)
Monday, January 28, 2013 | Comments

By Michelle Zilis
Industry representatives from a range of backgrounds expressed concern and frustration about the lack of transparency of the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) board during a Jan. 28 Textron Systems roundtable discussion. A FirstNet board member responded that the entity fully understands how critical public-safety input is.

Roundtable speakers used terms such as “cone of silence,” “large void,” “silos,” “fumbling around in the dark” and “invisible” to describe the actions taken by FirstNet and its relationship with law enforcement so far. The lack of opportunities to share input or have insight into how FirstNet is operating is not the way the process should be proceeding, several speakers said.

“There is a big disconnect between FirstNet and law enforcement,” said Tom Stone, executive director, FBI Law Enforcement Executive Development Association (LEEDA). FBI LEEDA provides law enforcement leadership training for municipal, state and federal law enforcement agencies, the association’s website says. Stone said the board is not taking advantage of connecting with young law enforcement who are technologically savvy and want to help.

FirstNet Board Member Chief Jeffrey Johnson responded in a statement after the roundtable. “FirstNet understands that a critical part of this process is outreach to all interested stakeholders to ensure that their views are adequately represented as we gather input on how best to deploy a cutting-edge, nationwide wireless broadband network,” he said. “Our immediate priority is to reach out to the public-safety community, state, local governments and tribes, to better understand their unique needs and challenges.

“It is not uncommon that the time necessary to stand up a new enterprise is misconstrued as a lack of desire to listen and discuss our plans. Nothing could be further from the truth. We need to first build an organization that can process our listening into meaningful input, and we must focus on listening to our users (states and first responders) before reaching out to the vendor community,” he said.

In a survey among law enforcement members of FBI LEEDA, members were asked if they had been approached to provide input to the federal government about the nationwide public-safety broadband network; 94.5 percent of respondents said no. “[FirstNet is] working on building something that the end users know nothing about,” Stone said.

The board announced the general design of the network without user input, which is counterintuitive to other large projects, said Paul Hertzberg, chief engineer at Textron Systems, which sponsored the roundtable. Textron Systems is an industrial conglomerate that specializes in defense, homeland security and aerospace solutions and has worked with the federal government on several projects, he said. “If the network does not provide what public safety needs, it will fail.”

“The lack of plans is causing frustration,” he said. There are methods that define the steps necessary to take and what order to do them for large projects. The Department of Defense (DoD) uses these steps with large federal projects, Hertzberg said. But FirstNet doesn’t seem to be following them. “I was shocked when they rolled out a design. In a large program that step has to come after the technical requirements are collected, vetted and accepted,” Hertzberg said.

“The most important question to me is are they building a commercial network that public safety uses or are they building a public-safety network that commercial carriers may be able to use?” asked Andrew Seybold, president, Andrew Seybold Inc.

There was disagreement among panelists if a standalone, dedicated network is best or if partnerships and sharing should be leveraged. Carrier representatives pointed to the cost as a challenge to public safety going it alone, while public-safety representatives pointed to the weaknesses seen in commercial networks during disasters and the different needs for mission-critical communications versus public networks.

A potential architecture presented by Don Brittingham, vice president of National Security & Public Safety Policy with Verizon Wireless, suggested that FirstNet invest in developing a fully redundant, dedicated core for public safety and then other aspects could possibly be shared.

“The network will have some commercial components to it no matter how we approach it,” said Mark Adams, chief architect, networks and communications, Northrop Grumman. “If it is a public-safety network, it would need to meet the public-safety requirements. We should be focusing on getting all public safety onboard.”

“First we need to ask, ‘what are the public safety requirements?’ and then we can see how carriers could play into it,” said James Teel, director of business development, Harris Public Safety and Professional Communications.

A full report from the roundtable will be submitted to FirstNet and available to read at www.connectingfirstresponders.com.

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