Urgent Matters

Observers anxious for more tangible signs of FirstNet progress

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Two years after Congress passed legislation creating FirstNet, some of the challenges associated with the massive endeavor have become more clear, including extended timelines to hire the qualified staff needed for outreach, network design and business modeling. Will Congress be patient enough to let FirstNet continue on its current path?

Has it really been two years?

Yes, we just passed the two-year anniversary of Congress enacting payroll-tax legislation that included language that reallocated the 700 MHz D Block to public safety, established a new entity called FirstNet, and earmarked $7 billion in federal funds to help FirstNet develop a nationwide broadband network for first responders.

By all accounts, this was groundbreaking event on many levels—the unprecedented amount of federal funding for public-safety communications, the establishment of quasi-government entity in FirstNet to execute a government mission, and the almost miraculous politics that made the legislation a reality when failure had seemed almost certain just weeks before.

Two years later, there have been no groundbreaking events associated with FirstNet. I’m not talking about groundbreaking in terms of game-changing policies like the enacting legislation; I’m talking about the kind of groundbreaking that accompanies the start of a construction project—something that would be particularly significant for arguably the one of the most significant engineering endeavors in the history of the United States.

This is surprising, for a couple of reasons.

First, there were eight public-safety LTE projects already planned—four of which were scheduled to be operational within months—when Congress passed the law creating FirstNet. Second, when the FirstNet board conducted its first meeting in the fall of 2012, FirstNet Chairman Sam Ginn and key board member Craig Farrill appeared ready to move forward on the project at a breakneck pace that frankly frightened some public-safety representatives.

That has not been the case.

Representatives of public safety and states were adamant in expressing their beliefs that they should be consulted before a network design and business plan were approved, which makes sense. FirstNet has established plans that are designed to ensure that input from both groups are heard before any decisions are made.

Even if all pieces had fallen into place perfectly and swiftly, it takes time to develop a network design and a business plan for a project of this magnitude. Such plans take even longer to develop without a qualified staff, and the hiring process has been much slower than anyone anticipated—a fact that Ginn has cited repeatedly.

Remember, FirstNet’s first hire was General Manager Bill D’Agostino, and he’s still a couple of months away from his first anniversary on the job. Meanwhile, the absence of significant hirings during the early months of this year has left many in the first-responder sector puzzled and frustrated.

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Insights from Donny Jackson concerning the most important news, trends and issues.

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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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