Lawmaker promises increased oversight for FirstNet

Congress will step up oversight of a wireless broadband network for emergency personnel that has been plagued by criticism, a key Republican promised this week.

The FirstNet system is a wireless broadband network meant to be used by first responders during emergencies and for the day-to-day work of ensuring public safety. Its development is ongoing, but Rep. Greg WaldenGregory (Greg) Paul WaldenGOP lawmaker: US will see improvement on virus 'in a couple of weeks' Pelosi not invited by Trump to White House coronavirus relief bill's signing CARES Act delivers on our health care needs in a big way MORE’s (R-Ore.) pledge to look into concerns raised about the program comes at a particularly pivotal time.

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In the past year, the organization has faced criticism from two government watchdogs as its board drafts a request for proposals from companies that could build the network. Officials hope that they can finalize the request by the end of the year.

He noted that the first responders who will ultimately use the system have expressed concerns about its development. Some emergency personnel have said that they have not been consulted enough on the development of the system.

“Oversight of FirstNet remains an issue,” Walden said. “As you know from the IG and the GAO, there are management issues that have been problematic at FirstNet.”

“We’re beginning to hear from first responder groups about concerns they have as this goes forward. Which is natural — it’s a big project, it’s new. So we’ll continue our oversight over FirstNet,” he said.

Walden chairs the Communications and Technology Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

FirstNet has faced allegations from the Department of Commerce’s Inspector General that it has ignored conflicts of interest among its board members. The IG also found that the group was lacking on other measures of transparency.

“Unfortunately, the Inspector General’s report confirms what we have suspected and long feared — that FirstNet had been operating without proper processes and with disregard for laws that guard against impropriety,” Walden said in a December statement.

There have been other organizational concerns as well.

A report from the Government Accountability Office in April expressed concerns about the organizational independence of the network and said that many key hires were made too slowly. The watchdog found that the slow hiring process had “delayed FirstNet’s progress.”

The development of the network has been ongoing since Congress signed off on the system in 2012. It is part of a larger conversation over how emergency personnel communicate that began after the attacks on September 11, 2001, when many first responders were unable to talk to one another because their systems were incompatible.

Walden also said this week that lawmakers would take a look at the availability of wireless spectrum and look to do what it could to make more available for use.

“We’ve had a working group looking at [the] 5.9 [Ghz band] and we’ve met with some of the auto companies on some of their issues,” he said.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced legislation in the last Congress to order the Federal Communications Commission to examine whether the 5.9 Ghz frequency could be opened up and used for WiFi. The FCC is scheduled to hold a separate spectrum auction next year that will involve buying excess spectrum from broadcasters and selling it to wireless providers.

Walden also noted his concerns about the Lifeline program, which currently provides mobile and landline phone service to low-income Americans. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has proposed expanding it to include Internet service.

“They promised a budget back in 2012 that they’ve still not produced. The interconnected database for eligibility has never been put together and used effectively,” Walden said. “And while they’ve got some reforms, they’ve got a long way to go in terms of fixing what’s there before they get a green light to move forward in other areas.”

His comments are in line with the sentiments of other Republicans on Capitol Hill, who want reforms made before the program is expanded. The FCC commissioners will vote on Wheeler’s proposal later this month.