NewsChannel 7 Investigates | 15 years after 9/11, “FirstNet” public safety broadband remains offline

(WSAW)
Published: Sep. 15, 2016 at 6:25 PM CDT
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15 years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks led to catastrophic first responder communication failures, The 9/11 Commission’s last, remaining recommendation to create a fix by building a separate broadband network for public safety, called FirstNet, remains offline.

As first responders continue pushing to build a system where they say we will all be made safer by their ability to communicate with each other, on a nationwide network, regardless of their location or agency, New York Police Department Commissioner Bill Bratton has helped make the sales pitch.

"We need a broadband network that can be built to mission critical standards. We need a network that can survive a natural disaster. And won't be subject to problems of commercial overload,” Bratton said during a FirstNet Board meeting.

But Braton’s plea came two years after a 2012 law, the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act, was passed crating the First Responder Network Authority, which is now known as FirstNet.

Made possible by the Federal Communications Commission selling more than $40 billion in radio signal space, FirstNet’s board was given $7 billion from that spectrum auction to complete a mission: build, operate and maintain an emergency and daily public safety communication service built on the “interoperability” first responders consider vital to being able to communicate.

“Once FirstNet is built out it will provide the bandwidth for which video, photographs, data, will be communicated out to those men and women on the scene," a FirstNet video announcer can be heard saying on one of the agency’s videos.

The implementation of the public-private partnership, however, has been slow. And early on had a fair share of problems, as detailed in a

It concluded the 15 member FirstNet Board had problems, including potential conflicts of interest, how they publicly reported financial disclosures and lacked transparency when awarding contracts.

While FirstNet’s spokesperson April Ward said all identified problems have since been fixed, the time it is taking to bring FirstNet online has to do with the significant planning required to bring the network online that can reach every single inch of 50 states and six jurisdiction’s big cities and rural areas.

The earliest Ward said it would be online is late next year.

Competing for Broadband Space

There is a seemingly insatiable appetite for online space. This, first responders argue, leaves them vulnerable in emergencies. Since, in essence, they find themselves competing for the same bandwidth the public’s using to research, stream videos and play games like PokemonGo.

“The interesting thing about that is as in times of crisis, catastrophe or disaster everyone’s trying to reach home or family of some sort,” Marathon County Sheriff Scott Parks added. “With FirstNet there’s going to be a limited amount of broadband network that’s set aside for the sole use of emergency services,” he explained.

There are currently five places testing FirstNet technology: 1. Adams County, Colo. 2. Los Angeles 3. Harris County, Texas 4. New Jersey and 5. New Mexico.

Stephanie Kanowitz writes for the trade journal GCN, which looks at public sector information technology. Despite a push from critics FirstNet should have been online sooner, Kanowitz

the early testers were consistently worried they did not have enough time to get used to and set up the new technology.

The idea excites Marathon County Lt. Mark Wagers, who is constantly competing for broadband space as he works on his squad’s mobile network.

"Having our own dedicated network, and I've heard about that in the past, that will dramatically change our efficiency," Wagers said.

But there is no timeline to bring that dedicated network online, other than FirstNet officials say it may be as early as 2017.

Already Obsolete Network?

Outside of trade journals, since the 2012 law created the FirstNet there have been few critics and very little reporting on the systems’ progress.

However, in a scathing article in the September issue of

, author Steven Brill concludes with both numerous technology changes, and changes in systems allowing first responders to receive priority broadband use since 9/11, FirstNet is already obsolete before it is operational.

“I would turn that around and ask them, what lives are worth in a crisis?” Marathon County 911 center leader, Lt. Frank Hanousek said. “Technology is prevalent in our society. It's ever increasing in complexities. It cost money to keep with the times and expectations of the citizens are,” he explained.

Hanousek said since there are already tax dollars allocated to technology, reinvesting in FirstNet makes better financial sense, verses trying to spend additional dollars buying already existing technology, like satellite phones and satellite data plans, the county currently does not have.

"It's relatively expensive,” Hanousek said. “And it's a lengthy process to get that."

Several public safety communication professional organizations have blasted Brill’s conclusion.

The Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials-International Executive Director and CEO Derek Poarch called

misinformed.

“They have done a disservice to the citizens of our country, our brave first responders and public safety communications professionals across the country by publishing an article that is more about attention-gathering than fact-based journalism,” Poarch said. “The truth is that FirstNet has made enormous strides undertaking a project unique in the world and of the highest importance to public safety and emergency response.”

The chair and vice chairs of National Public Safety Telecommunications Council also disputed Brill’s claims FirstNet was a wasteful initiative.

to read that article.

Brill did not return NewsChannel 7 Investigates request for comment.

As Much as $47 Billion to Operate

A

published last April from Congress' watchdog, The Government Accountability Office, shows FirstNet will be expensive to operate.

“These estimates indicate the cost to construct and operate such a network could be from $12 to $47 billion over the first 10 years,” the report states.

However, because FirstNet was established as a public-private partnership the authority will receive no further federal funding, once $6.5 billion is used to build the network.

Right now, FirstNet is in the process of selecting a private sector partner to operate the eventual service. The potential operators have bid at least $5.6 billion to pay back over the life of the contract. In turn, that private company will attempt convince all first responder agencies across the country to buy their product.

"There's a lot of rumors because of the time span it's taken to get this far and when it might come into effect and operating,” Hanousek said. “We really don't know what to expect."

The cost remains an unknown, as FirstNet’s staff continues to determine what each state’s plan will be. The agency has said they expect the price to be competitive.

Wisconsin searching for answers

It is up to each state if they want to opt-in or opt-out of the FirstNet system. In 2012, Gov. Scott Walker put the Department of Justice’s Interoperability in charge of this task. So far, DOJ spokesperson Johnny Koremenos, said the state has spent $359,700 investigating the prospect. Although Koremenos said no state money has been spent on the investigative phase. Instead, the DOJ is using an in-kind match from local agencies, calculated based on local officials time spent at meetings and trainings.

"This first-of-its-kind wireless network will ensure Wisconsin's law enforcement, firefighters and paramedics are always connected when they need it most - during emergencies,” FirstNet Spokesperson April Ward said. “FirstNet looks forward to continuing to work with Wisconsin to deliver a secure and reliable network to ensure first responders have the priority access and broadband capacity they need to keep communities safe."

DOJ Timeline:

Nov. 1, 2016: Estimated award date of the contract to a nationwide vendor by FirstNet.

May 1, 2017: Six months after the award, the FirstNet contractor is supposed to deliver its deployment plans to all 56 states and territories. This plan will include proposed coverage maps, and construction schedules. At the same time, the contractor has to provide nationwide coverage on an existing system. The service may be branded as “FirstNet,” even though it would be delivered on a consumer-grade network with only initial levels of prioritization for public-safety users.

Late July 2017: If the contractor delivers state plans on time, each state and territory will have decided at this time whether to pursue the opt-out alternative, which would require them to be responsible for the build out and operation of the radio access network within its jurisdiction.

Nov. 1, 2017: Deadline for the first coverage milestone for the new FirstNet network, as 20 percent of planned coverage—both in rural and non-rural areas—is scheduled to be completed. Static quality of service, priority and preemption (QPP) will be implemented throughout the system. All financial systems associated with FirstNet should be completed.

January 2018: Any state or territory electing to build their own radio access network will need to complete its RFP process and complete the State Alternative Plan (SAP) documentation to the FCC by the latter half of this month (180 days after making its opt-out decision). After this, progress in the opt-out states and territories becomes less predictable, because the law does not establish timelines for the FCC and NTIA to make their respective decisions on the opt-out proposal. In addition, there is no guidance regarding FirstNet’s negotiation of a spectrum lease agreement with an opt-out state or territory (other than that a draft of the spectrum lease agreement will need to be included with the State Alternative Plan (SAP) that is submitted to the NTIA).