When government contracts become corporate welfare
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The future of America's first nationwide broadband network for firefighters, police and other first responders is at a critical moment this summer. States are deciding whether to build their own, join the big federal solution or do nothing. It’s not an easy decision for governors. 

Fifteen years ago, following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the 9/11 Commission found that the communications network serving our nation’s first responders was subpar and had to be improved. After a decade of standard bureaucratic delays and bottlenecks, Congress formally created the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) in 2012 and authorized $7 billion in dedicated funding.

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The intended goal of the agency was to provide an interoperable communications network for our nation’s public safety that would promote competition, provide substantial rural coverage and become self-sustaining. 

 

Today, FirstNet is one of the highest-profile technology projects, which deserves close oversight to make sure it achieves its original goals within a reasonable cost and risk profile. In March, FirstNet awarded a de facto sole source, of more than $40 billion contract to the nation’s oldest telephone company, AT&T. 

After a competition in which one large and two small vendors pursued the contract, AT&T was awarded $6.5 billion in seed money to start building the nationwide network for the next 25 years, rights to share 20 MHz of prime spectrum for AT&T’s commercial business when not in immediate use by the first responders (estimated to be worth tens of billions of dollars), and finally, the opportunity to provide devices and service (law enforcement grade) to the entire national first responder community for a monthly charge (as yet undetermined) per user.

Regardless of where you stand on FirstNet, the clear and undisputed goal for each state should be to have the best network possible for first responders and the critical mission served by emergency personnel.

As states currently review the proposed FirstNet/AT&T plans and decide whether to opt in or out of the government solution, it is as important as ever to take time to fully vet the options and thoroughly examine the contract to ensure they are getting the best coverage within a dedicated, interoperable system at the best price. 

The proposed state plans appear to disregard the current levels of investment already made by many states and cities, which did not wait to make improvements to their communications infrastructure over the past 15 years. One large city has a system in place that already provides much better coverage and resiliency than what FirstNet is proposing. To opt in to the FirstNet solution, this city may have to forsake the critical improvements already made and waste millions of already spent taxpayers’ dollars.

If we multiply this across all 50 states, the District of Columbia and two of five U.S. territories, I am concerned about the long-term success and ultimate sustainability of the project. I believe it is incumbent on all first responder stakeholders to continue to look for ways to infuse competition and innovation into the solution and implementation.

Another cause for concern is that FirstNet’s proposed solution comes with extremely limited transparency. From the beginning, Congress granted FirstNet with an exemption related to public scrutiny (major transparency rules 47 USC 1426(d)). FirstNet’s Public Safety Advisory Committee was exempted from the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which dictates that advisory committees to government activities must conduct their meetings in the open and allow for public comment. The agency was also exempted from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the Federal Acquisition Regulations. These facts raise immediate red flags when we consider the size and scope of this contract.

As transparency also begets accountability, it’s no surprise that today, after 15 years of planning and layers upon layers of committees, it’s nearly impossible to understand exactly what the FirstNet-AT&T solution is offering and how the federal government will deliver on its promises to the states.

What is obvious, however, is that a mega-corporation will get to use government funding, and in this case, the gift of valuable spectrum, to benefit its business and solve long-term, existing problems on its aging network without the usual requirements for openness.

The only right thing to do is to ensure that our nation’s first responders get the best solution, and not another case of corporate welfare where the government pays a premium price, but gets an incomplete, inadequate or overpriced product or service. 

I understand that for some states, opting in appears to make sense. It is an easy thing to do politically, and for those seeking to push that easy button, AT&T’s efforts look better than the alternative. But, this means the states will simply be keeping up with other states and maintain the status quo. 

Whether a state opts in or opts out, direct stakeholder involvement by first responders will be essential to achieving the best outcomes. As things currently stand, it is unclear whether public safety mission critical management controls can be achieved when it is delivered across a single network for shared commercial and public safety use. Each state owns its respective spectrum, which not only falls under the leadership of every governor, but also represents a key asset and an economic development tool that belongs to the residents of that state. Thus, in making the opt-in or -out decision, it is imperative for governors to consider the implications for the next 25 years and for generations of residents.

The list of large, failed, government technology projects is long, from the IRS Business System Modernization program fiasco to the HealthCare.gov rollout. Nobody wants to see another glaring example of taxpayer dollars wasted and then quietly dusted off by the government and the contractor as though nothing has happened.

If we are to ever close the trust gap our government has with its citizens concerning its ability to do the right thing, we absolutely must deliver successfully on the initial promise of FirstNet. First responders and those that run toward danger, on behalf of all of us, deserve nothing less.

Vance Hitch served as the CIO for the Department of Justice from 2001 to 2011. He was a senior adviser to Deloitte from 2012 through March 2017 and is now retired. He previously worked as a senior partner at Accenture for 28 years and served in the Navy. 


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.