Allegations Of Dysfunction Continue To Plague FirstNet, Our $47 Billion (And Growing) National Emergency Network
from the history-repeats-itself-history-repeats-itself dept
When first responder communications networks failed after 9/11, the government decided to build a nationwide wireless emergency communications network that would actually work. It took a decade of general histrionics and dysfunction by Congress, but in 2012 the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act formally created the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet). FirstNet is an entirely new federal agency tasked with coordinating the build of a 700 MHz LTE-based coast-to-coast emergency broadband network.
But since its creation the effort (tell us if you’ve heard this one before) has been plagued with dysfunction, allegations of incumbent carrier cronyism, and stories of people getting paid a significant sum of money despite not actually producing anything of note. Fifteen years after 9/11 and four years after FirstNet was formally created, the program is showing only modest signs of progress. According to a new report in The Atlantic, completion projections for the project are now reaching $47 billion, without much of anything to show for it so far:
“It took FirstNet two years just to recruit a skeleton staff, only to be hit by an inspector general’s report that found potential conflicts of interest and problems with the awarding of initial consulting contracts. It then took another two years to issue a request for proposal (RFP) asking contractors to bid on the work to build and operate the system.”
That RFP finally emerged in January, with the two most likely contenders being AT&T and Verizon, both already firmly entrenched in our domestic intelligence gathering efforts:
“The FirstNet RFP, which finally emerged in January, seeks one company to operate the nationwide system. (Verizon, AT&T, and one or more firms that would gather dozens of regional partners into a consortium are the likely players.) The bidders have to offer to pay FirstNet at least $5.6 billion spread over 25 years in return for the bandwidth that FirstNet would make available to them.
The winner (presumably, whichever company bids the most above $5.6 billion, while also demonstrating it can do the job) can then sell the FirstNet network to police and fire departments, hospitals, and other first responders, one by one.”
If you’ve been playing along at home, you’ll recall that both AT&T and Verizon have a long, proud history of taking billions in subsidies and tax breaks for next-generation networks repeatedly left half completed. AT&T, as we’ve well documented, has a prodigious history of fraud, whether it’s ripping off low-income families, the hearing impaired, various school districts or the company’s own customers. While the nation’s top two wireless carriers make sense as the best positioned to win the contract, they’re also the most likely to milk the program for every extra penny it’s worth while doing the bare minimum required.
Not too surprisingly, the Atlantic article has reportedly upset those working on FirstNet, even though it’s far from the first report of this kind. The above-cited report by the Office of Inspector General of the Department of Commerce initially found numerous conflicts of interest on the FirstNet board, with many board members playing fast and loose with conflict reporting rules. It’s worth noting that many of these original board members (like FirstNet GM and former Verizon exec Bill D’Agostino) have already moved on, but these problems set the stage for the kind of dysfunction we’ve seen time and time again in telecom.
Estimates suggest the contract will be worth around $100 billion to the company that wins it, with the winner grabbing not only the lion’s share of fees paid by state customers, but the right to sell off excess capacity to private companies and consumers. Winners are expected to be announced in November. And while the project may be well-intentioned and even necessary, it’s painfully unclear if the U.S. government is actually capable of completing it without giving a master class in telecom waste, fraud and abuse. History, quite simply, just isn’t on the project’s side.