Critical Nationwide Network for First Responders Continues to Be Delayed

Little progress 15 years after 9/11 Commission called for integrated data, voice systems

Emergency responder drill
Emergency responder drill / AP

Federal efforts to build a nationwide broadband network for police officers and firefighters continue to be delayed 15 years after initial calls for the project, disappointing and potentially endangering the nation's first responders.

Conceived out of the recommendations from the 9/11 Commission, the government is still working through how to build the network, called FirstNet, which would allow law enforcement and other first responders to coordinate using high quality data and voice communications across jurisdictions with a range of compatible devices.

While the ruling on a lawsuit over a bidding war for the federal contract to deploy and operate FirstNet is currently pending, for the past several years the program has also been beset with accusations of intrigue and growing technological obsolescence.

"Under the thumb of ‘minders,' mostly second tier politicos in the Commerce Department, the FirstNet Board drifted away from being an advocate and planner for vital public safety communications in times of national emergency," said Jim Pasco, senior adviser to the president of the National Fraternal Order of Police, the nation's largest police union.

The First Responder Network Authority, also called FirstNet, is the independent agency inside of the Department of Commerce responsible for overseeing the development of the network.

"Instead, the bureaucrats set FirstNet on a course which would ensure extraordinary profits for the industry member who won the contract, without regard for the technology needs of those who protect and defend our citizens in crisis situations," said Pasco.

Congress created FirstNet through the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, appropriating $7 billion to seed the project. The Government Accountability Office estimated in a 2015 report that costs to complete and run the network over its first 10 years would run between $12 and $47 billion.

"To become self-funding, FirstNet is authorized to generate revenue through user fees and commercial partnerships," said the GAO, acknowledging the complexity of funding the construction and maintenance of such a network.

According to a report by the Congressional Research Service published in January 2017, the winner must be able to provide geographical coverage to 95 percent of the country within six months of winning the bid, suggesting that participation by either Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, or T-Mobile—one of the nations four largest carriers—would be "essential."

"Agreements with rural carriers may also be used to meet rural coverage goals," said the report.

Rivada Mercury, one of the bidders, filed a lawsuit against the federal government in November 2016 after it and another bidder had been notified that they had been dropped from consideration, leaving AT&T as the de facto winner.

The CRS report said that Rivada's lawsuit created uncertainty as to when the contract would ultimately be awarded.

In addition to the lawsuit, the effort is being delayed by a battle over interoperability. OpenSecrets wrote in August 2013 that Motorola Solutions, whose radios hold a substantial share of the first responder market, was heavily lobbying state officials and lawmakers to maintain influence.

"They are acting to protect their market share and proprietorship on public safety devices and technology at the expense of working together with the public safety community and FirstNet," said the Fraternal order of Police in a memo sent a month later to its national board members and state lodge presidents.

Citron Research, an investment newsletter by activist short seller Andrew Left, published a study at the beginning of February stating that U.S. handset sales to first responders were 76.7 percent of Motorola Solutions' bottom line and accused the company of selling handsets to the U.S. first responder market at five times what it sells the devices to the Europeans.

For example, Left compared a high end radio sold to UK law enforcement agencies at about $975 with a lower end radio sold to the city of Chandler, Arizona in 2016 at a discounted price of $5,200 per device, provoking a rebuke and counteraccusations from Motorola officials.

A 2014 investigation by McClatchy quoted an unnamed former senior Motorola executive who essentially called the two-way emergency radios obsolete and overpriced.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, during his confirmation hearing in early January, voiced his support for the "concept" of FirstNet while acknowledging the controversy and technical difficulties of the project.

"But the idea of giving the first responders all of the tools that you can imagine that could be useful has to be the right direction to go. So I'm certainly supportive of that," said Ross.