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?