Florida budget awards statewide P25 deal to L3Harris without bid, requires FirstNet interoperability
Citing the need for “emergency action,” Florida legislators are expected to approve a budget that would award L3Harris a 15-year contract to upgrade the Statewide Law Enforcement Radio System (SLERS) to P25 Phase 2 technology without a procurement and require interoperability with the FirstNet broadband system built by AT&T.
These SLERS measures are part of the $101.5 billion state budget that members of the Florida House and Senate are slated to vote on today, after waiting the required 72 hours after the budget was agreed upon in a conference between House and Senate lawmakers. If approved as expected, the budget package would be sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis for final approval.
Earlier this year, Florida Department of Management Services (DMS) officials initiated a procurement to select a vendor to build the SLERS-2 P25 system, but many were concerned that the bidding process would fail to yield a system in a timely manner—the result of the previous SLERS-2 procurement and contract cycle. Presumably with this in mind, lawmakers opted to forego a procurement and have incumbent SLERS vendor L3Harris build the network, as explained in the proposed legislation.
“In recognition of the critical nature of the statewide law-enforcement radio communications system, the Legislature finds that there is an immediate danger to the public health, safety, and welfare, and that it is in the best interest of the state to continue partnering with the system’s current operator,” the conference-committee amendment states.
“The Legislature finds that continuity of coverage is critical to supporting law enforcement, first responders, and other public-safety users. The potential for a loss in coverage or a lack of interoperability between users requires emergency action and is a serious concern for officers’ safety and their ability to communicate and respond to various disasters and events.
“The department [DMS} … shall enter into a 15-year contract with the entity that was operating the statewide radio communications system on January 1, 2021. The contract must include:
“1. The purchase of radios;
“2. The upgrade to the Project 25 communications standard;
“3. Increased system capacity and enhanced coverage for system users;
“4. Operations, maintenance, and support at a fixed annual rate;
“5. The conveyance of communications towers to the department; and
“6. The assignment of communications tower leases to the department.”
Although not the largest items in the budget, the SLERS provisions included in the conference report has been closely monitored within the public-safety community, because the Florida contract was expected to be the largest LMR deal in the U.S. and could be the first statewide system integrate broadband connectivity by design.
Terms of the conference report call for the execution of “a 15- year contract with the current operator of the Statewide Law Enforcement Radio System (SLERS) network at an annual rate of $19 million.” Florida-based L3Harris is the current SLERS operator.
In addition, the budget proposal allocates a one-time sum of $111 million from the General Revenue Fund to the state Department of Management Services (DMS) for the upgrade of SLERS “to be Project 25-compliant with the current operation.” This line item also stipulates that “the system must be interoperable with FirstNet upon availability and provide for expanded capacity and enhanced coverage.”
Finally, the conference-report budget would provide $54.548 million in general-revenue funds to DMS “to replace 6,465 portable radios and 6,214 mobile radios and associated accessories for state agencies which operate on the Statewide Law Enforcement Radio System and have reached their end-of-life or end of support date.”
Radio-replacement funding was a priority for state agencies, as many radios on the current SLERS—an LMR network that leverages aging EDACS EA technology—are very old, as agencies had been told for years that a new system would be in place when the current SLERS contract expires on June 30.
The radio-replacement section also outlines functional requirements for new devices—language that should be good news for L3Harris, which likely is the only vendor that can meet the mandates.
“All purchased radios must be able to operate dual-mode operation on both Project 25 Phase 2 and EDACS EA land-mobile-radio support systems, and, as an option, be FirstNet certified LTE connectivity,” according to the conference report.
These SLERS budget items were added to previously reported language that would allocate $12.5 million to pay for the assignment of tower leases to DMS. However, the conference-report language acknowledges the fact that no deal has been finalized with L3Harris, which controls access to the SLERS towers under the current contract.
“If, at the time of assignment to the department, the total annual cost from July 1, 2021, through June 30, 2022, of the radio tower leases assigned is different than the amount in this appropriation, the Department of Management Services shall submit a budget amendment to adjust this Specific Appropriation,” according to the conference report.
Access to the SLERS towers was cited as one of the reasons why DMS was not able to reach a contract agreement with Motorola Solutions, which had been selected to build a statewide P25 network and survived protest efforts from L3Harris. Negotiations with Motorola Solutions ended in January 2020.
Sources familiar with the situation have indicated that the tower-lease issue was problematic only in scenarios in which vendors other than L3Harris required access to the sites. With the budget effectively awarding the statewide P25 contract to L3Harris, but tower-lease decision caused some sources to wonder whether the state would consider making SLERS tower sites available to commercial broadband network operators, particularly after the FirstNet interoperability language became known.
If this budget is enacted with the SLERS items intact, then the procurement for the SLERS-2 P25 system presumably would be halted, as L3Harris would be the selected vendor. On Feb. 16, DMS officials released its Invitation to Negotiate (ITN) for SLERS-2, with vendors required to submit their bids by May 11.
By naming L3Harris as the P25 vendor via the legislative process, the state could save valuable time in getting the P25 system built and operational. In addition to not having to receive and evaluate bids, this approach would prevent a lengthy protest period that would delay the beginning of construction.
According to the SLERS-2 business case prepared by Federal Engineering, the best-case-scenario timeline for SLERS-2 calls for the system to be operational during the latter half of 2026—a timeline that does not include delays for protests or other reasons. Many sources within Florida have questioned whether the existing SLERS—the last EDACS EA system in world, according to L3Harris—could be maintained to provide effective mission-critical voice communications for that long.
On the surface, this approach also could have some cost benefits for the state. Under the terms cited in the conference report, L3Harris could receive about $400 million identified in this budget for a 15-year network deal, not counting the $54 million for replacement radios. As a point of comparison, the Federal Engineering business case estimated that the state would pay $537.48 million over the first 10 years of SLERS-2 under its lowest-cost scenario.