Representatives of first-response agencies and public-safety communications vendors yesterday expressed frustration with the lack of communication they have had with the FirstNet board that is charged with overseeing the deployment and operation of a nationwide 700 MHz broadband network for public safety.

To date, the FirstNet board has convened twice in meetings that have been webcast, and it directed the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to conduct a notice of inquiry (NOI) on its behalf. However, many long-time public-safety communication experts said they feel that they have valuable insights that could help FirstNet that are not being leveraged.

Brian Hendricks, director of public policy for Nokia Siemens Networks, said trying to meet with FirstNet board members has been difficult, and he feels that there has been a "cone of silence" dropped around the FirstNet process.

"It leaves most of us with the sense that we're sort of fumbling around in the dark for the light switch," Hendricks said. "We're now a couple of months removed from 133 NOI responses with no indication that those NOI responses were well considered or that there is follow up or action items that will flow from that."

The statement came from one of 24 panelists that spoke yesterday during a three-hour roundtable session organized by project-management firm Textron in Washington, D.C., that was attended by 149 others. Carl Holshouser, Textron's director of business development, said he was "not surprised" by the statements made during the session, because they echoed what Textron officials have been hearing for some time.

"I was very pleased with it. I thought people were constructive," Holshouser said during an interview with Urgent Communications. "I was very concerned with making sure that it was productive, constructive and positive, and I thought [the event] met that expectation. I'm very hopeful that the communication will be received by FirstNet and that FirstNet will know that we're all available for two-way communication at any time."

Holhouser said Textron believes that FirstNet should use a project-management firm — whether it is Textron or another entity — to help the board grapple with many aspects of the massive nationwide project, including an assessment of public-safety user requirements more comprehensive than those recently submitted by the National Public-Safety Telecommunication Council (NPSTC).

Meanwhile, one of the biggest concerns expressed during the meeting is that FirstNet is so focused on trying to find a sustainable business model — likely leveraging commercial partnerships — that it is not making public safety's needs its first priority.

"Are they building a commercial network that — oh, by the way — public safety can use?" mobile wireless consultant Andrew Seybold said during the roundtable session. "Or, are they building a public-safety network that — oh, by the way — commercial network operators can use? I think that's the question that we need answered right away."

Don Brittingham, vice president of national-security and public-safety policy for Verizon Wireless, echoed this sentiment.

"I think, fundamentally, what they ought to be looking at is: 'Are we trying to build a private network for public safety, or are we trying to build a commercial network that will serve public safety?'" he said.

"We all know the challenges of building a private network in terms of the cost. But, from my view, all we have to do is look at the failed D Block [auction] to know that trying to build a commercial network through a partnership with public safety just has some inherent challenges. Commercial interests are not going to be aligned with public safety — if that were the case, maybe we wouldn't need all of this activity in the first place."

Although the frustration level of many participants concerning the perceived lack of outreach by FirstNet to the public-safety sector was apparent, Seybold reminded the audience that the FirstNet board still is trying to determine exactly how to operate under the umbrella of NTIA. In addition, Seybold and Stacey Black — vice president of federal regulatory for AT&T — noted the many FirstNet board members are making a transition from working in a corporate environment to working in a government setting.

"They are making progress — it is incremental, but they've got a lot to do," Black said. "You've got guys like Sam Ginn that come from the commercial-wireless-carrier community that now have to work inside of a federal agency, and they've got a lot of things to learn.

"I think there's a lot of stuff going on that we're not even aware of that I think we need to take into consideration before we criticize or complain about a lack of progress."

After the roundtable session, FirstNet board member Jeff Johnson issued a statement to address some of the concerns expressed yesterday.

"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," said Johnson, who is in charge of FirstNet's outreach program until a full-time person is hired for the position. "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. FirstNet board members have already begun meeting with these stakeholders, and are aggressively planning additional meetings over the next few months to gather further input.

"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. We are anxious to kick off a broader dialogue with the vending community in the second quarter of this year."