Urgent Matters

For FirstNet, major decisions necessary to reach goal for year-end RFP

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If FirstNet hopes to meet its goal of issuing a final RFP by the end of the year, it’s time for the FirstNet board to make critical decisions.

When a new United States president takes office, a great deal of attention is paid to the first 100 days in office, as many pundits consider it a litmus test that sets the tone for the new administration. For FirstNet board members, a similar benchmark may be approaching in 139 days—the end of this calendar year.

That’s when FirstNet plans to release its final request for proposal (RFP), the document that will determine how potential partners—a group that is expected to include commercial wireless carriers, infrastructure entities and/or system integrators—will bid (or not) for the right to develop a nationwide public-safety broadband network.

FirstNet already has submitted a draft RFP and received responses on July 27, which normally means that preparing a final RFP is not a particularly difficult task. Most of the time, no more than few tweaks to the draft RFP are needed, and it’s ready to go, according to several sources familiar with the federal procurement process.

Of course, almost nothing about FirstNet is “normal,” and this is no exception. This is not a simple matter of a government or other enterprise soliciting bids for a piece of equipment with a straightforward funding source or offering concession rights to largely predictable—if not captive—audience.

Instead, the FirstNet proposal is one that requires bidders to provide a nuanced balance of investing enough to meet public-safety coverage and resiliency requirements while fostering a commercial opportunity that will generate the kind of returns that will keep shareholders happy. Even with every detail determined in full, submitting a bid promises to be an extremely complex endeavor.

Making the situation more difficult is the fact that many aspects of the FirstNet effort have not been addressed. In response to the 666 (yes, you read the number correctly—brings a whole new meaning to the old saying that that “the devil is in the details”) questions to the draft RFP, FirstNet made more than  more than 200 references to the idea of providing answering in a “subsequent RFP” and said that "seeks feedback" on items more than 100 times.

Now, some of these issues could be considered minutiae, and FirstNet’s unwillingness to commit to outlining a bid-evaluation process—a question repeated many times—is understandable.

But many other items not addressed in the responses are very significant, such as what the potential customer base will be, exactly when a bidder would have access to the valuable 700 MHz spectrum to sell commercial services, or what responsibility a bidder would have to assume for cybersecurity.

And that’s not all. Here’s a quick list of some of the notable “unknowns” identified in the draft RFP questions:

  • The user base qualifying as a public-safety entity (PSE)—the subject of an ongoing FirstNet proceeding;
  • What incentives/disincentives FirstNet will establish to ensure that winning bidder(s) takes actions necessary to get public-safety users to subscribe to the network;
  • Section C-2, which will address the service-level agreements for radio access network integration;
  • Section C-10, which will address cybersecurity and cyber hardness requirements;
  • Comparable pricing that will be used to determine the “most favored pricing” that FirstNet envisions;
  • How priority and preemption will work, which is expected to be a factor in determining how much excess capacity is available to be sold to commercial users;
  • Coverage requirements, particularly as they relate to rural and indoor locations; and
  • Data-throughput requirements, which are being reviewed and could be changed from the 768 KB/s downlink and 256 KB/s uplink from the cell edge with 50% loading.

One item not asked formally but being asked privately throughout the industry is, “Who will we be dealing with as this network is being deployed?” Most of FirstNet’s key staff positions carry titles with the word “acting” in front of them, with Acting Executive Director TJ Kennedy fulfilling the duties of the top job—and a couple others, according to one organizational chart—for a whopping 16 months without the permanent title.

It is time for the FirstNet board to choose a permanent executive director, who can then hire a team of top executives that can help realize the board’s vision. This type of stability is needed for FirstNet employee, potential bidders and first-responder stakeholders.

Discuss this Blog Entry 1

An Industry View (not verified)
on Aug 15, 2015

Donny, industry will have to get over mini-shocks to come soon.

The strong ones will reset quickly, ask themselves "ok, what's really different about the economics and the deal?" Others will shrug and "see, I told you this would never happen", turn into ghosts, or run for cover after making some noise on the Hill.

For its part, FirstNet would be smart to issue the RFP as scheduled and carry out mock protests by one old-school, status quo provider (a Motorola) and one newcomer with untested but possibly disruptive innovative approaches and deep pockets (a Alphabet/Google or Apple).

We can't let protests slow this program or lose our nerve in industry because of coming blips.

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Donny Jackson

Donny Jackson is editor of Urgent Communications magazine. Before joining UC in 2002, he covered telecommunications for four years as a freelance writer and as news editor for Telephony magazine....
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