Even by February 2013, then-FirstNet Board Chair Sam Ginn was already feeling pressure to move more quickly, as evidenced by his statement after the group’s meeting that month:
“The FirstNet Board has been hard at work now for five months, laying the groundwork for what will be one of the largest telecommunications networks ever built,” Ginn said. “We understand the enormity of our task at hand, and the urgency to get it done as expeditiously as possible. But we want to get it right.”
That was more than three and a half years ago, and people across government, public safety, the wireless industry and the public are still asking why FirstNet is taking so long. The answer is almost as complex as FirstNet itself, but let’s take a look at some of the factors – and why there’s reason to hope.
The History of FirstNet
Congress created the First Responder Network Authority, or FirstNet, in February 2012 “to establish a nationwide broadband network for public safety.” Creation of the network was the final recommendation of the 9/11 Commission to seamlessly connect police officers, firefighters and EMS providers and ensure as close to universal interoperability as possible.
The power of its promise, both then and now, is the ability to use communications technology most consumers take for granted to save the lives of first responders.
Congressmen created FirstNet with $7 billion raised from the sale of spectrum and mandated that it be governed by a 15-member board of directors made up of the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Attorney General of the United States, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, and 12 members appointed by the Secretary of Commerce from public safety, government and the wireless industry.
In August 2012, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce appointed the 15 board members and named wireless industry veteran Ginn as its chair.
Ginn and other board members moved quickly to build the FirstNet team, but they hired only other wireless industry experts and executives. As a result, members of the public safety community felt left out and some complained that government procurement rules hadn’t been followed.
Among other issues early on, an inspector general’s report ultimately found potential conflicts of interest with the way consultants and others were hired, and in May 2014, Ginn and other key board members resigned.
New leadership was appointed, and FirstNet officials were left having to continue building a new executive team, issuing Requests for Information (RFIs) and meeting with scores of state partners across the country.
All of that said, there has been recent progress. In January 2016, FirstNet issued its final Request for Proposals (RFP) for the deployment of the nationwide public safety broadband network, a major step forward. At least three big-name bidders have responded to the RFP, and while the deadline has been extended several times this year, award of the contract is still set for November 2016.
FirstNet officials say they’re hopeful the project is back on track, with a growing team and some important looming deadlines. Some are even saying the network could be a reality as soon as 2018.