From afar, the San Francisco Bay Area appears to have all of the components necessary for a successful 700 MHz wireless broadband deployment in the near future — spectrum rights, $70 million in capital, a reputable vendor and regional cooperation. Combined with an aggressive buildout schedule, most industry experts have estimated that the Bay Area likely was at least nine months to a year ahead of the rest of the county in making 700 MHz LTE a reality, because other regions were only beginning to formulate their request for proposal (RFP) criteria and/or governance models.
Many of these regions anxiously have awaited word of progress from the Bay Area, which federal officials and public-safety representatives believed to be a flagship project that would set multiple precedents for the rest of the nation, from both technical and logistical perspectives.
But just as momentum crested toward the construction of a 10-site pilot network that was scheduled to make its operational debut last month, some key agencies in the Bay Area began raising questions regarding several aspects of the overall Bay Area Wireless Enhanced Broadband project, or BayWEB, which is expected to include more than 200 sites in a 10-county area.
From vendor selection to spectrum rights to governance, significant fundamental issues have emerged that threaten to delay the much-anticipated LTE buildout, if not permanently undermine it. Initial allegations of a skewed vendor-selection process generated scrutiny in other aspects of the project, which unearthed evidence that the two most important documents allegedly were signed on behalf of non-existent entities, with no record of official authorization or even an authorization vote being taken.
As Bay Area officials attempt to sort through the maze of similar-sounding entities to determine which portions of the public-safety LTE effort in the region meet legal guidelines for authorized actions, they face a very harsh reality. If the BayWEB work to date is undone or redone in the name of procedural transparency, it potentially would mean turning away $70 million that cash-strapped California governments would be hard-pressed to replace.
Meanwhile, from a national perspective, officials in other regions of the country are monitoring the situation closely with the idea of gleaning helpful ideas — and pitfalls to avoid — for their own projects, while hoping that the Bay Area issues do not cast a negative cloud over public safety’s 700 MHz legislative and funding initiatives in Washington.
On the road to broadband
Sometimes lost in the recent controversy is the overwhelming consensus in the San Francisco Bay Area that the region’s first responders need access to the high-speed wireless connectivity and interoperability that
700 MHz LTE networks can provide.
And the entities in the region already had considerable experience working together through the Bay Area Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) organization, which is headed by an Approval Authority “that provides policy direction for the [UASI] program and makes final decisions regarding projects and funding,” according to the UASI Web site.
One of the key UASI planning groups is the Bay Area Regional Interoperable Communications System (Bay RICS), which oversees initiatives for regional interoperability via microwave (Bay Loop), Project 25 (BayComm) and information systems (BayISS). The broadband interoperability initiative is known as BayWEB.
With the blessing of the Approval Authority, a total of $6 million in UASI funds designated to the cities of San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland was allocated for the deployment of a 700 MHz LTE pilot now known as Project Cornerstone. In addition, the Approval Authority directed the same three cities to pursue an FCC waiver last fall that would allow use of the 700 MHz public-safety broadband spectrum in the region that was licensed to the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST).
As the FCC considered the spectrum request, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) was accepting applications for the second round of federal stimulus grants available from the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP). On March 15, Motorola agreed to be the vendor partner for the region; as part of the deal, the company agreed to apply for more than $50 million in grant money and pay a 30% match if the application was successful.
In May, the FCC granted a joint waiver to the cities of San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland to use the PSST spectrum. In August, a spectrum lease was signed with the PSST to secure rights to use the airwaves.
Also in August, UASI General Manager Laura Phillips announced at the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) annual meeting plans to have the Project Cornerstone 10-site LTE pilot operational in time to participate in the region’s Urban Shield multiagency field-training exercise in mid October. Just a week later, NTIA awarded a $50.6 million BTOP grant to Motorola, to be used for the deployment of the Bay Area 700 MHz LTE network.
With funding and spectrum for both Project Cornerstone and BayWEB secured, it appeared that everything was in place in early September to meet the aggressive deployment schedules outlined by Phillips. But, as the FCC granted final approval for the spectrum waiver, the cities of San Jose and Oakland began expressing concerns about Project Cornerstone.
Although the Project Cornerstone pilot was funded in large part by the $4 million in UASI money earmarked for San Jose and Oakland, no Project Cornerstone sites were to be located in either city.
Even more disconcerting were claims from the city of San Jose and its county — Santa Clara — that the process used to select Motorola as the vendor partner for BayWEB was lacking, as the UASI Approval Authority blessed only an initial request for information (RFI) in the fall of 2009 regarding the proposed pilot network, according to a letter from San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed. The Approval Authority was not informed about the selection process and did not vote on Motorola as the vendor partner for the larger BayWEB project, according to Reed.
Heather Tannehill-Plamondon, who works for Phillips as the Bay Area UASI’s director of contract administration and project management, said that the cooperative agreement with Motorola did not require an Approval Authority vote or consultation.
“At this point, the Approval Authority is not involved in the BTOP process,” Tannehill-Plamondon said. “The UASI did not apply for the BTOP grant. The UASI management team supported the application and worked on the application, but the UASI will not be administering that grant.”
Furthermore, a review conducted by the California Emergency Management Agency (Cal EMA) concluded that the selection process was appropriate, primarily because the deal with Motorola was a cooperative agreement instead of a contract.
“The UASI and Bay RICS met and exceeded the due-diligence standard needed to sign a cooperative agreement,” the Cal EMA letter states. “In fact, the process that was engaged in is similar to a typical procurement that would have been done in the standard contractual buyer-seller relationship.
“It is the conclusion of this review that the Bay Area UASI and Bay RICS met every federal requirement for establishing the cooperative agreement with Motorola Inc. to apply for BTOP grant funds to build a mobile broadband solution for public safety.”
To date, even the harshest critics of the vendor-selection process have said that Motorola is a reputable company that is capable of executing the proposed LTE network. However, the method used to select Motorola has been the subject of considerable scrutiny in part because Phillips — and several of her key staff members — are former Motorola employees.
In its review, Cal EMA noted that a review panel heard presentations from four vendors — Motorola, IPWireless, Alcatel-Lucent and Harris — before Motorola was selected. Those presentations were made at the request of a two-page e-mail sent only to entities that responded to the fall 2009 RFI that UASI staff subsequently has referenced as a request for proposal (RFP). However, representatives for each of the three vendors other than Motorola told Urgent Communications that they believed they were making presentations in response to a small RFI, not an RFP for a project that could involve hundreds of millions of dollars in the long term.
“All notifications pointed out and referred to the process as an RFI,” according to one vendor representative who requested anonymity. “It was repeatedly stated that this was an RFI for three trial locations only during the orals themselves.”
A similar story was told by another vendor.
“Everybody in this industry knows the difference [between an RFI and an RFP] — you don’t stay in business unless you do,” said another vendor representative who also requested anonymity. “They are different things. If it’s an RFP, you start getting into certain things — you have to bid, and you have to have a performance bond.”
Who’s in charge?
San Jose Mayor Reed disagreed with the Cal EMA findings. In a responding letter, Reed notes that the cooperative agreement with Motorola was signed by Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern on behalf of the Bay RICS Policy Group, which is described as the “governing body for the shared San Francisco Bay Area Regional Interoperability Communications System (Bay RICS)” in the document.
San Jose officials contend that the UASI Approval Authority should have been told of the review panel’s recommendation and voted whether to enter a cooperative agreement with Motorola. The Bay RICS Policy Group did not have the authority to take such action — or any action.
“The agreement signed between the Alameda County Sheriff and Motorola on March 15, 2010, represents that the Sheriff is ‘acting on behalf of the Bay RICS Policy Group,’” according to a letter from Reed and Santa Clara County Executive Jeff Smith. “On March 15, the Bay RICS Policy Group did not exist. It first met on July 7, 2010.”
Tannehill-Plamondon said that she could not recall when the Bay RICS Policy Group first met but acknowledged that its members “did not go into a meeting to discuss that cooperative agreement” with Motorola when it was signed on March 15.
Ahern said that he was approached by Phillips to serve as executive sponsor for the Bay RICS Policy Group, which he understood to be a relatively new entity that would be responsible for overseeing the BayWEB project.
“[Phillips] came to me before the BTOP grant program was awarded, and she told me, ‘As a member of the Bay RICS Policy Group, we are asking that you be the executive sponsor,’” said Ahern, who was told that his role as the mutual-aid coordinator for the region made him ideal for the position. “That, to me, seemed to be a group, and it seemed to be existing prior to the BTOP grant being awarded to Motorola.”
On the UASI Web site, the only minutes posted for the Bay RICS Policy Group are from the July 7 meeting.
Similar questions regarding authorization and existence have arisen on the spectrum side of the project, as well. In August, Ahern signed a lease agreement with the PSST to secure the rights to the 700 MHz broadband spectrum. In the document, Ahern inked the deal on behalf of the “San Francisco Bay Area Urban Area Region,” which PSST Chairman Harlin McEwen — the other signatory of the document — said he believed to be the Bay Area UASI.
But Tannehill-Plamondon said that the Bay Area UASI is not a party to the spectrum lease.
“The waiver is actually to the Alameda County sheriff on behalf of the region,” she said. “So the UASI doesn’t own the spectrum, and the UASI isn’t leasing the spectrum. The Alameda County sheriff is the signature on the lease, on behalf of the region, as the regional mutual-aid coordinator.
“The UASI has done a great deal of work in support of getting the lease and working on the waiver and getting the conditional waiver. [But] the UASI is not the lease holder.”
Ahern said that it is his understanding that the “San Francisco Bay Area Urban Area Region” and the “San Francisco Bay Area Urban Area” — the latter of which is the name used on the application for an FCC experimental license — refer to the same 10-county geographic region. But neither is the Bay Area UASI organization.
“I don’t think it [the San Francisco Bay Area Region] is an entity,” Ahern said. “I think it’s an area that involves maybe 100 various city and county agencies.”
FCC spokesman Rob Kenny said that only jurisdictions representing waiver recipients are supposed to sign spectrum-lease agreements with the PSST. The lease agreement requires that the lease holder have “the requisite power and authority” and be “duly organized, validly existing and in good standing” at the time the document is signed.
Even if the “San Francisco Bay Area Urban Area Region” exists, the city of San Jose has not transferred its FCC waiver rights to use the 700 MHz spectrum to another jurisdiction, Reed said.
“Whatever [the San Francisco Bay Area Urban Area Region] is, we don’t yet know,” Reed said. “I do know what the Bay Area UASI Approval Authority is, because we’re a member of that. I don’t know what these [other] entities are.
“It’s kind of amazing. I don’t know how someone could usurp our rights to the 700 MHz spectrum without our permission or talking to us.”
Exactly what impacts these findings will have on the BayWEB project have yet to be determined. Thus far, a planned media event in September was cancelled and plans to have Project Cornerstone operational in mid-October were scrapped. But UASI officials have insisted that those changes were not made as a result of the ongoing controversy in the area.
Indeed, plans still call for the Project Cornerstone network to be deployed by the end of the year, and all entities other than San Jose and Santa Clara County have been very cooperative, Ahern said.
“Everybody’s worked very well except one sector,” Ahern said, noting that no entity in the 10-county Bay Area is obligated to anything as a result of him signing documents with Motorola and the PSST. “If they don’t want to be a part of it, they can opt out. That’s fine; it’s totally up to them.
“We’d be more than happy for them to be part of broadband. In fact, we think it’s important that they be part of it. We hope to reach a better spirit of cooperation in the near future.”
Whether that scenario is realistic was a source of considerable speculation as of press time. Reed expressed frustration that San Jose has had to make numerous freedom-of-information and public-records requests in an effort to view documents about the BayWEB project — including specifics about each participating entity’s obligations during the next decade — when the information should have been available, so votes could be taken.
“I think it’s important to have a competitive process that’s open,” Reed said. “I think you’ve got to follow the rules.”
But the fundamental question facing Reed and others in the Bay Area is whether pursuit of a new vendor-selection process is worth the financial risk. With the BTOP grant award and Motorola’s willingness to provide a 30% match, the BayWEB project has $70 million in funding, which is expected to cover the costs of building a 203-site LTE network for first responders during the next three years.
Without the BTOP grant — designated for use by Motorola, not any Bay Area jurisdiction — and Motorola’s match, there is enough money to deploy the Project Cornerstone pilot network. But a new source of funding would be needed for the BayWEB project. Certainly the city of San Jose will not be able to offer much financial help, Reed said.
“We don’t have any extra money,” he said. “That’s not unusual in cities around the country, particularly in California.”
When asked whether he would be willing to discard the $70 million in hand in order to pursue a new vendor-selection process, Reed declined to make a definitive commitment.
“Those are questions that are way beyond my ability to answer at this point,” Reed said. “I’m just trying to figure out what happened.”
Even less clear is what — if any — impact the issues in the Bay Area could have outside the region. Public-safety officials are hopeful that the Bay Area controversies will not have a negative effect on efforts to convince Congress to reallocate the 700 MHz D Block spectrum to public safety and to provide $10 billion to $16 billion in federal funding to help pay for the buildout and maintenance of the LTE networks that would form a nationwide broadband network for first responders.
“I don’t think it’s relevant,” said Charles Dowd, deputy chief for the New York City Police Department. “Everybody has local issues, no matter where you go. The bottom line is that, if on a national level we set up the governance mechanism correctly, then those things are local concerns and don’t impact anybody else.
“I don’t see it as an issue.”
Bill Schrier, CTO for the city of Seattle, echoed this sentiment.
“I’m not too concerned about it, because there are always disagreements within any particular region,” Schrier said. “I think this is more of an internal thing regarding management and procurement than it is a fundamental disagreement on direction.”
But others believe the Bay Area situation could influence the way several parties participate in the 700 MHz process. Some Beltway sources believe that the FCC could consider a more active role in checking whether an entity has the authority to sign a spectrum lease with the PSST. Morgan Wright, a vice president for Alcatel-Lucent, said that he is hopeful that the episode does not negatively affect public safety’s efforts on Capitol Hill, but he can imagine a scenario where lawmakers could have second thoughts about appropriating billions to the nationwide 700 MHz LTE effort.
“They could say, ‘If you guys can’t get this right, how can I have confidence that you’ll get the $15.5 billion right?’” Wright said. “Absolutely, this worries us. We’re worried it will affect procurement going into the future, that it will affect buying attitudes and that it will delay the market unnecessarily. I’m not pointing fingers, but this is the fallout of what happens [in the Bay Area].”
Based on Alcatel-Lucent’s initial discussions with potential customers, it appears that the vendor-selection process in other regions of the country could be scrutinized more closely than they might have otherwise, Wright said.
“We have to be careful about procurement,” he said. “Everybody, thanks to San Francisco and this whole thing, is very, very touchy about procurement right now.”