Despite a spate of public emergencies in recent years -- Hurricane Sandy, the Boston Marathon bombing and a mudslide in Washington state last year -- it will be several more years until police officers, firefighters and others can access the federally funded, nationwide broadband network being built for first responders.
With a $7 billion budget, the First Responder Network Authority, known as FirstNet, is overseen by the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Three years after the establishment of the FirstNet team, the project has encountered regulatory obstacles that could delay further progress -- a slow hiring process and management challenges, among others.
During a recent Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation committee hearing on the topic, lawmakers expressed concern that the national project -- designed to help first responders communicate with each other during emergencies -- may be too ambitious to pull off.
In an opening statement, committee chairman Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., cautioned the FirstNet team to learn from other large federal IT projects.
"One commentator recently asked whether FirstNet is on a path to becoming the next 'Healthcare.gov,'" Thune said, referring to the federal health insurance website's botched rollout. But he added, "the challenge of setting up this network is arguably many times greater."
Thune also noted that FirstNet needed to be self-sufficient, as the federal budget couldn't tolerate spending more than $7 billion. (The FirstNet team plans to generate revenue from user fees and auction some of its spectrum. During the hearing, FirstNet chairwoman Susan Swenson assured the committee she was not looking for money.)
In response to several senators' questions about how the team could ensure FirstNet reached rural areas, Swenson said rural coverage is “as high a priority as urban". She added that the group is currently consulting with state representatives to "give an opportunity for folks in the state to tell us where the priorities are."
When Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., asked if the network would be secure against cyberthreats, Swenson answered FirstNet was "collaborating very closely" with the Department of Homeland Security.
But recent reports find problems in FirstNet's management of the nationwide project. In December, the Commerce Department’s inspector general released a report about FirstNet’s ethics and procurement practices, finding that the group’s board members did not file timely public financial disclosures and that its contracting practices lacked transparency, oversight and procedures to prevent erroneous costs.
During the hearing, Mark Goldstein, the Government Accountability Office's director of physical infrastructure issues, shared preliminary findings from a FirstNet audit.
“They have to take more time, focus more attention on certain kinds of management issues, such as ensuring there are codes, standards of conduct, by which people will be measured," Goldstein said in an interview. "We didn't feel they were doing as good a job as possible in working through the risk matrix and understanding how various challenges they face could potentially undermine their mission."
Trying to develop a wireless broadband network that doesn't cost a lot of money, and that first responders will actually use, he said, is a "pretty tall order."
The group is also stymied by hiring challenges, Swenson said, noting that background checks and other regulatory barriers mean it can take up to 10 months to hire new employees at FirstNet.
With a sluggish hiring process, and without direct authority to hire, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said “there is simply no way you can compete for the limited pool of highly skilled talented people who are being hired by Google [and] Apple. There is high demand for these people and you’re telling them, ‘Sorry, we can’t let you know for another 10 months,’ and they’re going to say, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.'"
By not removing regulatory obstacles to hiring, he added, “the federal government is failing you.”
Challenges notwithstanding, Swenson said, FirstNet is on track to consider a draft request for proposals toward the end of March, so a final request for proposals can be issued toward the end of the calendar year.
And when Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., asked if the FirstNet team could have the program operational by 2022, Swenson answered, “If we don’t, we should be shot."
(Image via John Roman Images/ Shutterstock.com)