Lawmakers question safety network's funding

Lawmakers question safety network's funding
© Getty Images

An official from a top government watchdog on Thursday said it is too soon to know if a proposed communications network for first responders will be financially "sustainable."

“There are a great number of unknowns and challenges going forward about how the network will develop and whether it will be actually sustainable over time,” Mark Goldstein, a director at the Government Accountability Office, told the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications about the FirstNet system.

The First Responder Network Authority, known as FirstNet, is a planned broadband system intended to be used by first responders to help them communicate during emergencies such as natural disasters or terror attacks.

Lawmakers pressed witnesses on FirstNet's development.

The program, run under the Commerce Department, is intended to be self-funded, but Goldstein told lawmakers there are many variables.

“It depends on who actually subscribes. It depends on competitors. Verizon is decided that it’s likely to compete. So I think it remains unknown," he said about the stability of the program.

But Goldstein also defended the project.

"It’s not to say that FirstNet isn’t doing sort of everything it can I think at this point,” he added.

AT&T was selected in March to build out FirstNet. It is planning to spend $40 billion to get the system up and running and to maintain it for 25 years.

Ed Parkinson, FirstNet’s government affairs director, touted that arrangement.

“The model of the [request for proposal] that we were able to put forward shifted the risk away from the federal government and onto AT&T,” he said.

So far, 27 states have chosen to participate.

Although FirstNet seeks to cover all 50 states, each governor is given a 90-day period to decide whether to participate or opt out, Parkinson said.

Lawmakers questioned how states that had their own networks would cooperate in emergencies.

“If a state opts out, and they’re developing their own system, how it that going to work if there’s some sort of cross-state crisis?” Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) asked Parkinson.

Parkinson told lawmakers that states opting out would still need to meet certain criteria, including negotiating wireless spectrum leases with FirstNet.

“We can’t have islands of no service, states of no service,” Parkinson said.