FirstNet is sending out an invite (RFP). Will anyone come?
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The best of all worlds would be that FirstNet would have a number of bids to review, bidders to meet with, responses to discuss, and perhaps a way to minimize effects of the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) requirements, so deals can be crafted and FirstNet will end up with some great partners. For this outcome, there must be some changes—not only to the RFP itself but also to the way in which this RFP is being perceived by those who work for the federal government, versus the FirstNet team.
As long as some view this as an acquisition—and an e-mail to me this past week said, “We appreciate your continued interest in the FirstNet NPSBN acquisition”—it is doubtful, from where I sit, that FirstNet and potential partners can truly come together to make this important network a reality.
If it were up to me, I would scrap the entire RFP as it exists today and rewrite it so it is partner-friendly, not an RFP for an “acquisition.” I would provide roadmaps for phased build-outs, and require only data and video services until 80% of the network was built and operational. I would encourage potential partners to describe how they would partner with FirstNet, what the relationship would look like, and how differences of opinion would be resolved. I would make it clear that the public-safety community would play an important role in the partnership as well.
FirstNet must set reasonable milestones and be truly open to the concept of partnering and teaming, as opposed to simply demanding. When paying 100% of the cost of procurement, it is fine to demand what you want and impose penalties when you don’t get it. However, when seeking partners to join as a member of a team, demands should only be made for the benefit of the customer (public safety), and all partners should have a way of resolving issues.
If FirstNet becomes the heavy-handed partner, public safety loses. If FirstNet does not change the draft RFP to something more sensible for partnering, FirstNet loses. If FirstNet loses, public safety loses, and believe me, public safety has lost enough to last a lifetime. It doesn’t deserve to lose this opportunity to finally have the spectrum it needs. It doesn’t deserve to lose the opportunity to make its jobs safer and to be able to better serve the citizens of this country, regardless of where they are. FirstNet has only one chance to get it right, and that chance is the final RFP that should hit the street at the end of December.
There is still time before the December 2015 release date to change the wording to encourage companies to respond as a partner to FirstNet rather than a government supplier. This is a first-of-its-kind public/private partnership, and if FirstNet and the feds don’t get it right this time around, there will be no do-overs. This will be the end of the line for FirstNet. Public safety cannot afford for FirstNet to fail, but if it does fail, it won’t be because of those directly involved with FirstNet.
FirstNet, NTIA, and the Department of Commerce, please get it right. This is a partnership of three or more entities, not a procurement. It is a give and take, a team coming together to further advance the communications capabilities of the public-safety community.
This is not the time to demand. It is the time to be flexible and ready to sit down across a table and discuss the details when the proposals are in. Those discussions should not focus on how many cell sites to deploy or how many devices to support, but how this partnership will work, how the work will be divided, and how quickly it can be completed.
The term public/private partnership is included in the law that created FirstNet, so make it happen.