FirstNet is not a master of its own fate
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FirstNet is not a master of its own fate
Hiring from within the federal government would have been the easiest way to bring people into FirstNet. However, there were, in reality, no federal employees with any broadband wireless network experience. Very few federal-government employees could be found that even had public-safety communications experience, so that option was rejected.
The next option would have been to hire full-time staff but the board was informed that the government hiring process was complex and protracted, taking six months or more for each hire. In most cases, hiring would have to be sequential, meaning it would take up to two, three or even four years to bring the organization to critical mass.
The final option was to hire contractors. The federal government has been using contractors for ages. It can hire a contractor for a task and then end the contract, and then it can hire someone else for another task and so on. Thus the concept was approved by the board, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), and the U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC). Unfortunately, NTIA did not have a contract officer to hire the contracting agency, so the task of putting the contract in place was assigned to another DOC agency, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).
The FirstNet board did provide names of engineers and subject matter experts they had confidence in and, in some cases, had previously worked with. But, again, you build a team of those you know can do the best job in the fastest and most efficient way. Yet the contractors were vetted and hired not by FirstNet but by NTIA.
Remember that FirstNet does not, to this day, have a checkbook or a payroll account or any way to pay out any type of funds. All of the funds needed to run FirstNet are approved and disbursed by those within the federal government who are charged with making that happen.
I know from my own hire as a FirstNet contractor that people within the federal government who were not part of FirstNet handled the entire process. My security clearance process was run by yet another subcontractor who was paid by the federal government to check me out and make sure I was suitable for a contract with the federal government. I was notified by the contracting agency that my contract has been approved, not by FirstNet.
Further, the contractor work assignments were under the direction of FirstNet, but the contractors were paid by another government agency through that agency’s contractor. This resulted in delays and some bad miscommunications.
As an example, the last month of my contract with FirstNet was December 2013. I was asked by my FirstNet boss to travel and to work every day until my contract expired on Dec. 17 of that year. Yet when I turned in my time card for that period, the contracting agency—after checking with the NTIA—cut out more than $17,000 of money due me for my work. I was told that I had not been authorized by NTIA to work so I should not have worked the hours as directed by FirstNet. I was never paid for that time.
Those at FirstNet did not have—and, it appears, still do not have—control over who is hired and paid. Part of the federal government’s overreaction to Fitzgerald’s allegations was to take multiple actions that ended up costing FirstNet more than a year’s worth of effort, causing those who are now at FirstNet to spin their wheels and duplicate much of the work that had already been done. The bottom line is that NTIA and DOC signs and administers all FirstNet contracts, not FirstNet and its board of directors.
FirstNet was formed by Congress as an “independent authority” within NTIA, yet it is not operating as though it is independent. Rather, it is saddled with procedures, processes, rules and regulations that no other network operator in the United States has to deal with. FirstNet is, in reality, a multi-billion-dollar wireless network operator for public safety, but so far it is being viewed by some as an NTIA project, tightly coupled to the federal government and all of its bureaucracy and complexity.