Urgent Matters

Three years after its creation, it is time for FirstNet to begin making key decisions


Three years after being established by Congress, FirstNet has not made as much deployment progress as many public-safety and industry officials had hoped. However, most of the main components appear to be in place, so 2015 should see the FirstNet board make key decisions about the much-anticipated nationwide broadband network for first responders.

Sunday marked the three-year anniversary of President Barack Obama signing the law that created First Responder Network Authority, better known as FirstNet. On that day, most in the public-safety community celebrated, enthused and relieved that a plan had been established to provide first responders with a dedicated broadband network that would enable a host of needed applications.

Today, interest in the FirstNet initiative remains high, but the temperament toward the effort has shifted from outright enthusiasm to a much more guarded attitude. FirstNet is meeting concrete milestones on its year-old roadmap—for instance, consulting with states and gathering data about what is technologically possible—but the lack of real-world public-safety LTE deployments has many public-safety officials and vendors frustrated.

It was not what was expected by many, particularly after original FirstNet Chairman Sam Ginn outlined plans for an aggressive deployment schedule—too aggressive, according to many in public safety and state government that had not been consulted at the time. But altered expectations have been part of FirstNet from the moment Congress created it as an independent authority within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), according to Anna Gomez, NTIA’s deputy assistant secretary at the time.

“Back when this was just a concept in the [Obama] administration’s mind, I think they did not foresee that it would take this long to get to where FirstNet is today,” Gomez said. “Then again, back when it was just a concept in the administration’s mind, the administration wanted FirstNet to be a federally chartered corporation, not an entity housed within a federal agency … It would have been a non-profit [organization], and it would not have been subject to—for example—the federal-acquisition regulations.

“This was back before the statute was passed. The statute itself created what it called this independent authority housed within NTIA, and it took a long time to figure out what that really meant.”

Determining the nature of FirstNet, how it should operate and what type of oversight was appropriate proved to be a challenge, Gomez said.

“In time, all of the lawyers came to the conclusion that FirstNet was a federal entity subject to rules that are generally applicable to federal entities, except where the statute states otherwise,” she said. “Just coming to that conclusion took a long time, and I think that they’re still struggling with trying to figure out how to be an entrepreneurial entity that operates within the strictures of the federal government.”

Indeed, Ginn repeatedly expressed frustration with the federal-government processes associated with simply trying to hire staff. The top position in the organization—then known as a general manager, since renamed executive director—was not filled until April 2013, when Bill D’Agostino was hired.

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


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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