Our $7 Billion Emergency LTE Network Appears Stuck In Corrupt, Bureaucratic Purgatory

from the more-of-the-same dept

Ever since first responder emergency communications failed back on 9/11, there has been a concerted effort to try and build some kind of wireless, national emergency communications network. In typical Congressional fashion, this included several years of yelling, screaming, disagreement, and general histrionics. After more than a decade, the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 finally created the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), which according to its website will coordinate the build of an 700 MHz LTE-based emergency broadband network that piggybacks on existing networks.

FirstNet was recently hit with a small scandal after Iowa Sheriff and board member Paul Fitzgerald complained that FirstNet had been hijacked by large carriers like Verizon and AT&T. According to Fitzgerald, FirstNet spent its first few years of existence with carrier-tied leaders conducting secret meetings, making decisions outside of the board room, hiring outside industry consultants with ties to industry, and elbowing out participants with actual security and emergency backgrounds.

Not to worry though, because FirstNet, whose GM is former Verizon executive Bill D’Agostino, investigated itself and declared that nobody broke the law. Granted, concerns were about conflict of interest, not violation of law, and an investigation is ongoing by the Inspector General of the Department of Commerce. While these accusations were being flung about, companies like Motorola were also rumored to be trying to scuttle the whole project, preferring to continue to make money off the scattered ad hoc selection of emergency communications services using their radio hardware.

Not too surprisingly, all of this appears to have resulted in little to no actual work getting done despite the $7 billion budget (which most agree will balloon handsomely before anything even gets built). According to a new report by a FirstNet State Point of Contact in the State of Washington, the entire project now appears to be stuck in neutral as agencies and companies scurry for their piece of the pie, with key staffing positions remaining left unfilled two years later, and the people who were hired getting paid handsomely with not much to show for it:

“I’ve heard – but cannot verify – that some of the contract staff hired in late 2012 and 2013 were paid $300 an hour…The contract under which the staff were hired expired in October 2013. Most of the existing 35 or so contracted staff (who were quite competent, by the way) were laid off. Three new contracts were established in October. But as of this writing – four months later – no technical contractors, and only a handful of public relations contractors, have been hired. How do you create a nationwide design and individual state-specific plans for a wireless network without technical staff?……key positions go unfilled, such as the CIO and CTO positions.”

Two years into a $7 billion project and just 25 people have been hired, many of them focused on public relations. Worse, numerous existing communications networks that were being used were put on indefinite hold so this new network could be built, meaning in some areas emergency communications is actually worse for our $7 billion. If that’s not a fantastic start I’m not sure what is. Can the United States actually work cohesively together to build anything on a national scale anymore (OK, outside a total surveillance state)? Or are we really so broken, corrupt and incompetent that even providing emergency communications to the people who save our lives is a bridge too far?

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Comments on “Our $7 Billion Emergency LTE Network Appears Stuck In Corrupt, Bureaucratic Purgatory”

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Mr Ham says:

Meanwhile, the amateur radio service is alive and well around the world and costs the government only the cost of administrating the licensing systems.

It’s great that the government wants a ‘first responder nationwide network’ for first responders. But they already have a nationwide network that works very well for emergency disaster and volunteer civil communications in the amateur radio service (ham radio operators). We step in when our communities call for help with communications for community events such as state fairs, public sporting events, and for disasters and weather related hazards.

Ham radio operators stepped into their roles for emergency communications with the Boston Marathon bombings, the 9/11 attacks, hurricane damage (Katrina, Sandy, Ivan, Charlie, etc), tornadoes, earthquakes, and the whole gamut of other problems where other communications systems don’t quite meet the needs of the moment. It’s not a perfect situation, not all communities have an active amateur radio presence since the Internet and cell phone service have taken over day to day communications. But it’s very easy to pass the tests to get a license. The government could expand the nation’s emergency preparedness inside a couple of years with a tiny fraction of that 7 billion simply by openly promoting amateur radio and emergency communications preparations.

Instead of spending billions on a new system that would inevitably be screwed over by the incumbent commercial providers, Congress would have been well advised to look into what’s already in place and *working* to improve and expand it. I suppose that doesn’t get headlines for the people back home. Seven billion on a service that doesn’t work, versus a few million to study and improve a service that does work. One gets headlines and votes, the other one gets a yawn.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I, for one, actually feel a great deal safer and more comfortable because of the existence of the ham community. Their history is impressive, their public service is undeniable, and they do a better job of maintaining communications in the face of massive disasters than the government, the telephone (including cell) service, and the internet.

Thank you, ham operators everywhere!

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