With IG report in rearview mirror, it’s time to let FirstNet pursue its plans
What is in this article?
Questions from the beginning
FirstNet was established by Congress after watching previous public-safety broadband efforts—for instance, the unfunded Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST)—not yield desired results. Lawmakers and public-safety officials wanted to change that, so there was significant political pressure to get a nationwide public-safety broadband network deployed quickly.
Congress could have established FirstNet as a pure government agency, which would have made the rules FirstNet should follow very clear, but some feared that the massive project could stall in government bureaucracy. Instead, Congress opted to create FirstNet as an “independent authority” within NTIA, presumably to give FirstNet some additional flexibility to get this monumental task done as efficiently as possible.
As we have noted many times in this space, the problem with that “independent authority” definition was that no one seemed to know exactly what it meant. Should FirstNet operate more like a company, like Amtrak and the U.S. Postal Service do within a government structure? Or, should FirstNet operate more like a government entity, with the only exceptions being those spelled out by Congress?
Sam Ginn, FirstNet’s chairman at the time, was outspoken about his intentions to make this network a reality sooner, rather than later. A telecom veteran with a track record of getting networks built, Ginn made aggressive statements about his vision for the network and timelines, and he noted the marching orders that he and the other original FirstNet board members were given when accepting their posts.
Ginn repeatedly referred to FirstNet as a “company” during open FirstNet meetings and other public-speaking engagements, and other FirstNet officials—notably, D’Agostino as late as his last meeting in March of this year—did the same. As far as I know, there was no admonishment from government officials for this.
And the early actions of FirstNet reflected those of a startup company. Ginn and board member Craig Farrill—FirstNet technology leader until this year—surrounded themselves with people they had worked with before and trusted, just as most private-sector startups do.
Meanwhile, it seemed like NTIA was put in a difficult position, particularly during FirstNet’s early days. Under the law, NTIA—a government entity—is charged with overseeing FirstNet, an “independent authority” without clear rules initially. In addition, because FirstNet did not have any staff for months, certain NTIA staff members saw their duties expand to help FirstNet.
Also, while some NTIA officials may have bristled internally at the notion of FirstNet being called a “company” or even some of the contracting practices during those early days, making any strong statements of concern publicly may not have been an option when there was still uncertainty about what rules FirstNet should follow.
Had it been clear from the beginning that FirstNet largely should operate like a government entity—not like a private company—it’s hard to imagine that contractor Peters Suh would have been allowed to provide a presentation on a potential vision for FirstNet applications at the board’s very first meeting.
Because it was the FirstNet board’s initial meeting where bylaws had to be established, there was no way the board could have approved of a contract with Suh ahead of time, so he could participate in the meeting. Even if Suh did not charge FirstNet directly or indirectly, his participation in the first meeting certainly gave the appearance that he had an inside track to work with the organization, which a typical government entity would not want to do.
This should not be construed as a criticism of Suh. I thought he made some excellent points about the importance of applications to the overall FirstNet mission and provided an informative perspective at that first meeting. I also thought the fact that Suh and Farrill made presentations at the meeting was a sign that—for better or worse—FirstNet’s leadership planned to move as quickly as possible to make this long-awaited network a reality.
But it always struck me as odd that Suh participated in that initial FirstNet meeting, because that’s not a normal government procedure. When asked by the many public-safety vendors and consultants that were not invited to participate, my response was that FirstNet’s “independent authority” status may mean that it did not have to follow all government rules. Indeed, if it was a problem, wouldn’t someone from NTIA or the U.S. Department of Commerce have said something?
As an outsider, one logical conclusion is that the rules for FirstNet simply were not clear at the time, so government officials did not feel comfortable raising an objection. Another possibility is that there is a government exception that I don’t know about that allowed Suh to participate. Still, I was surprised that Suh’s arrangement with FirstNet was not part of the IG report.