GAO report says FirstNet on track, calls for greater oversight, transparency
AT&T is meeting all contracted deployment and adoption goals for the FirstNet public-safety broadband network, but the FirstNet Authority could improve the system’s chances of success by improving oversight and transparency to stakeholders, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released yesterday.
“The success of the network depends not only on AT&T’s contract execution and FirstNet’s oversight but also on the confidence of the end users, the nation’s first responders,” the GAO report concludes. “As FirstNet enters the next phases of its partnership with AT&T, it could reduce the risks to the network’s long-term success by strengthening its schedule oversight; increasing transparency, communication, and reporting of additional information to states and other public-safety stakeholders; and obtaining and using meaningful information on the satisfaction of the first responders for whom the network is intended.”
Entitled “Network deployment is progressing, but FirstNet could strengthen its oversight,” the 43-page GAO report recommends that the FirstNet Authority CEO:
- “Take steps to ensure that the integrated master schedule for the program is developed and maintained in accordance with the best practices provided in GAO’s Schedule Assessment Guide.
- “Identify additional information about the program, including FirstNet’s oversight and monitoring activities, that can be shared with public-safety stakeholders and periodically communicate and report this information to them.
- “Share relevant portions of the accepted state-specific commitment reports with the states, as specified in the contract.
- “In consultation with public-safety stakeholders and its contractor, as appropriate, identify and obtain periodic information or meaningful indicators on end-users’ satisfaction that would serve as a metric to gauge performance quality, including the effect of the FirstNet network and products on public-safety operations.”
In response to the GAO report, a letter from FirstNet Authority CTO Jeff Bratcher states that the “FirstNet Authority agrees with the GAO’s recommendations and will take appropriate additional steps to apply lessons learned and address the GAO’s concern.”
The GAO report was requested by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the communications, technology, innovation and the Internet subcommittee. GAO issued the full version of the report in December. Yesterday’s release is a “public version of a sensitive report” of the full report, noting that “information that FirstNet deemed proprietary has been omitted.”
All four GAO recommendations cited in the report call on the FirstNet Authority CEO to take actions, but the FirstNet Authority has not had a permanent CEO since the end of September 2018, when former CEO Mike Poth resigned. The FirstNet Authority CEO functions are being split between Bratcher and Ed Parkinson, the organization’s executive director of external affairs.
According to the FirstNet Authority web site, Bratcher is handling executive functions of the CEO, while Parkinson is performing the non-executive CEO functions. Parkinson served as acting CEO from October 2018 to May 2019, when a limitation on the tenure expired for someone serving in an “acting” capacity in the role.
An independent authority within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the FirstNet Authority conducted a CEO search last year, the results of which have not been revealed. Many public-safety observers have noted that the lack of an NTIA administrator since David Redl resigned from the post in May 2018 as a possible reason that no one has been named as FirstNet Authority CEO, but there has been no official indication that this is an issue
Despite the absence of a FirstNet Authority CEO, Lisa Casias was announced as the organizations Deputy CEO during the December meeting of the FirstNet Authority board.
GAO found that AT&T is meeting—or is on track to meet—all nationwide buildout and adoption goals included in the FirstNet Authority contract, which has never been released publicly. Despite this progress, AT&T’s master schedule was found lacking when judged in comparison with GAO best practices.
“Collectively, these best practices are organized into four characteristics of a reliable schedule,” according to the GAO best practices. “A schedule is considered reliable if each of the four characteristics is substantially or fully met; if any of the characteristics are not met, or minimally or partially met, the schedule cannot be considered reliable.”
Based on this statement, the AT&T master schedule is not reliable, according to the GAO report. The GAO assessment determined that AT&T schedule “minimally met” the criteria for being credible, while it only “partially met” the standards for being comprehensive, well-constructed and controlled, according to the GAO report.
“For example, the schedule only partially captures all activities or the duration or sequence of activities,” the report states. “Key practices call for tracking a contractor’s progress toward the expected schedule. Having a more detailed schedule to review could improve FirstNet’s insight into AT&T’s deployment and strengthen FirstNet’s use of the schedule as a management tool.”
When these issues were noted, FirstNet Authority officials interviewed by GAO said they were “not concerned about the gaps in the AT&T master schedule, for a variety of reasons,” such as the fact that AT&T will not receive payment unless it meets specific milestones cited in the contract.
GAO conducted “about 40 interviews” with state, local and tribal officials, as well as first responders. These included interview with “almost 30” different states’ single point of contact (SPOC) to FirstNet—positions that have seen their roles decline significantly in importance since the completion of the opt-out/opt-in phase that was completed in December 2018, according to the GAO report.
Communicating better with public-safety stakeholder is important to the overall success of FirstNet and the willingness of public safety to use the nationwide broadband system, according to the GAO report.
Additional information wanted by officials interviewed included “contract requirements, milestones, and progress; technical details on the network including operational status and location of cell sites; subscribers within the official’s agency or agencies across the state that had adopted the network; and FirstNet’s oversight activities and results, including assurance from FirstNet that network coverage and performance had been verified,” the GAO report states.
“Even public-safety officials who were pleased with their experiences on the network to date or their relationship with FirstNet representatives reported that having more information was important. In the absence of this type of information, many public-safety entities we contacted expressed concern that they did not know whether FirstNet was holding AT&T accountable. For example, several officials indicated they did not know whether FirstNet or AT&T was ‘running the show.’”
In addition, more than half of the officials interviewed expressed “concerns about misleading or disorganized sales tactics from AT&T representatives,” according to the GAO report, which noted both accurate and inaccurate depictions of network coverage by AT&T representatives. Device-related issues also were cited in the report.
“In some instances, these officials stated that FirstNet or AT&T representatives explained, after the fact, that differences in user experience were to be expected depending on the device model or subscriber identity module (SIM) card being employed,” the GAO report states. “Specifically, FirstNet or AT&T officials explained that the optimal performance could only be achieved when Band 14 devices connected to a Band 14 cell site.
“According to FirstNet officials, the best experience will be when subscribers use a Band 14-capable FirstNet-ready device with a FirstNet SIM card while in a Band 14 coverage area. The officials said any other combination could result in slightly degraded performance or features being unavailable. This is notable given that Band 14 coverage is still limited and generally state and local public-safety officials do not have insight as to where these sites were located or when, if ever, coverage will be expanding.”