Category Archives: broadband

Keeping the Fires of FirstNet Burning

keep-the-firstnet-fires-burningKeeping the Fires of FirstNet Burning:  What We Need in the FirstNet Board

The United States Secretary of Commerce, Penny Pritzker, will shortly appoint (or re-appoint) four members to the fifteen member Board of the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet).

What should Secretary Pritzker seek in candidates for these appointments?   I believe she should find FirstNet Evangelists.

Let me explain.

For the original Board, appointed in 2012, we needed entrepreneurial, “get it started, get it done” Board members with a sense of urgency.   We found those, to some extent, in folks like Sam Ginn and Craig Farrill, private enterprise businessmen who had built cellular networks.  FirstNet struggled in that first year, however, for a couple reasons:  Sam and Craig ran smack dab into the federal government entanglement of bureaucracy and risk aversion.   The Board also struggled with “get it started urgently” versus “consult with public safety” to design the network.   FirstNet made mistakes in hiring professional staff – Bill D’Agostino as Executive Director and Ali Afrashteh as Chief Technology Officer.  Neither had any public safety experience, and each had personal foibles and weaknesses (such as the lack of ability to speak coherently in public) which contributed to the difficulties FirstNet encountered in 2013.

Luckily, FirstNet is mostly back on track, thanks to the leadership combination of private company entrepreneur Sue Swenson and all-around utility player and Acting General Manager T. J. Kennedy.

Today the FirstNet train is definitely steaming down the track and the timetable for its future stops on that railroad to public safety wireless nirvana are visible.  I think those milestones are probably:

  • FirstNet issues RFP – early 2016 (official date Dec. 31, 2015)
  • RFP responses received – late 2016
  • RFP evaluations finished in 2017 – successful vendors known internal to FirstNet
  • FirstNet and state staff incorportate the RFP results into Plans for each state – 2017
  • State Plans finished and sent to Governors – late 2017 and 2018
  • First deployments occur – late 2018?

But there is a huge disconnect in this timetable.

Most states have been actively engaging their stakeholders for two years or more.  In Washington we’ve attended or conducted over 180 meetings over two years with police and fire chiefs, Mayors and city managers, cops and firefighters and transportation officials.   We’ve told them FirstNet is coming, we’ve listened to their problems and concerns, we’ve generated excitement and skepticism.

But shortly very little will be happening visible to these key FirstNet stakeholders.   From mid-2015 to mid-2017 FirstNet is going to be focusing on their RFP, getting vendor responses, evaluating them.   This is all internal stuff, bureaucratic process, federal procurement details.   And it must be kept (mostly) secret.

How do we keep the “Fires of FirstNet” burning for our public safety stakeholders?

Two years from now, when the apparent successful vendors are chosen, we’ll need those stakeholders to help FirstNet build its State Plan.  Can we keep interest knowing nothing will really be delivered for three more long years?    In three years there will be many elections.  Mayors and County Commissioners and other leaders will change.  Probably a third of our police and fire chiefs will resign, retire or be replaced.

How do we keep those Fires alive during this hiatus?

PIE-windshield graphic

A Fire Commander Displays a Map on His Windshield

First, we have to paint a future vision protecting the public in a FirstNet world.   This vision could include inspiring video such as this one about fighting wildfires with excellent information and great technology.  It will include the Internet of Things where sensors in the world and devices on responders (such as body-worn video) are used in response.  It could just be a simple catalog of the many powerful and interesting apps already being used by some responders in their work.

But a vision is useless without inspiring Evangelists to paint that vision.

That’s where the FirstNet Board comes in.

The FirstNet Board

The FirstNet Board

FirstNet needs a Board with inspiring leaders and a proven track record innovating in technology.  Sue Swenson and Vice-Chair Jeff Johnson are two examples of innovators with an ability to inspire.  Former Vermont Governor Jim Douglas and Kevin McGinnis are also terrific Evangelists for the FirstNet message with elected officials and tribal nations, respectively.  There may be others on the Board who get out and spread the word, but most Board members seem to be invisible to those of us working in the field.

Every future Board member must have the time and ability to articulate this vision.

Furthermore Board members should mix it up a little.  Typically the commercial members of the FirstNet Board speak to conferences of vendors and commercial companies while the public safety members speak to associations and conferences of public safety officials.  Public safety associations need to hear from those commercial members, and, at the same time, those commercial members need to listen to public safety officials visibly and publicly at their conferences.   Sue Swenson does this, but we need more commercial Board members willing to bring the vision to public safety and listen to first responders, thereby helping to shape the vision.

Active, engaged FirstNet Board members mean the Fires of FirstNet will continue to burn while the federal bureaucracy grinds through its procurement process.

(This post was updated on August 7 to acknowledge the engagement of Board members Douglas and McGinnis.)

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Live Long and Prosper?  Impressions from the SPOCs Meeting

spock

A SPOC?

The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) conducted its first-ever meeting of “state points of contact” or SPOCs (pronounced like “Mr. Spock”) in Reston, Virginia, this past week.   Here are some of my impressions from the event.

Every state or territorial governor has appointed a SPOC – there are 55 all together.  SPOCs range from public safety radio systems managers to policy wonks to state Chief Information Officers (CIOs) to The Adjutant General (i.e. Commander of the National Guard), depending on the state.

FirstNet was created by Act of Congress in February, 2012 – over three years ago – and most SPOCs were appointed in 2013.  Yet this is the first time we’ve all been invited to meet together to share experiences and hear and advise FirstNet itself.

A Subtle Shift in Tone

SPOCs are a skeptical bunch.  In past regional and “initial consultation” meetings we have expressed a number of reservations about FirstNet. In those meetings many of our questions were aggressive, almost accusatory. In this meeting I detected a subtle shift in tone.

SPOCs and others at this meeting asked questions in a supportive and generally curious way.  In many cases SPOCs actually chimed in with suggestions to improve FirstNet’s process and project management.  For their part, FirstNet staff were more welcoming and accepting of such suggestions than I’ve seen in the past.  There is still a tendency for FirstNet folks to “go legalistic” – hide behind the Law which created the Authority.   But that is less pronounced than in the past.

Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing.   This is Bruce Tuckman’s model which describes the phases which most organizations and projects go through.  Perhaps we are shifting from “storming” to “norming”.

At some point I hope FirstNet moves from Norming to Performing:  you’ll know that time has arrived when SPOCs start to refer to FirstNet using the pronoun “we”.   That is, instead of saying “you should do this, FirstNet” you’ll hear “we should try this approach”.  That time is still months or years away.

firstnet-roadmap-larger

Roadmap or Timeline to FirstNet

What’s the Timeline?

As we SPOCs talk to fire and police chiefs and other potential users of FirstNet, we always get two questions:  what will it cost and when will it happen?

Amazingly, the “what will it cost” question is easy to answer.  FirstNet’s leaders say again and again that FirstNet’s monthly subscription fee has to be about the same as what commercial wireless companies charge police and fire departments today.  That appears to be about $40 to $60 a month for an “all you can eat” (unlimited data) plan.

Guesstimating the timeline is somewhat more problematical.   After all, we are now more than three years into the 10 year life of FirstNet.   However just in the last month the timeline has become clearer to me.  Here’s the Bill Schrier (NOT official) guesstimate:

  • April, 2015 – Draft Request for Proposals (RFP) issued
  • July 31, 2015 – Initial dump of data collection (number of users, kinds of devices) due to FirstNet from states – this will be another input into the RFP
  • December, 2015 – RFP issued seeking vendor(s) to deploy the network
  • Sometime in 2016 – RFP responses due
  • Late 2016?? – RFP evaluation complete
  • Sometime in 2017 – “state plans” issued by FirstNet to each State. The state plans will include coverage and cost information from the apparent successful RFP vendor(s). Governors have 90 days after the state plan is issued to either accept the plan or decide to build on their own
  • Sometime in 2018? – expect the first network deployments

This timeline may be too optimistic – I’ve often been accused of being a Pollyanna in my guesstimates.  And we should never underestimate the power of the non-FirstNet federal bureaucracy to find issues and obstacles to slow progress.

Pushing Forward with Outreach

Some states have been quite aggressive in their outreach plans.  Iowa has one of the very best plans.  Iowa has a FirstNet point of contact in each of its 99 counties (would those be County Points of Contact or CPOCs?).  Iowa has held face-to-face meetings with responders in almost all the counties and is forming committees in each of its six homeland security regions.  Iowa has also received some of the best media coverage, such as coverage by Cedar Rapids TV stations for its meeting with responders in Linn County.

On the other hand, some states have not even started to talk to their responders about FirstNet.  Usually that’s because the Governor is skeptical of FirstNet as “another bureaucratic Federal agency” or is concerned that FirstNet won’t be able to deploy the network at all, reflecting poorly on the State’s own outreach effort and therefore the Governor.

A major question for most SPOCs is how rapidly to push our efforts to contact responders.  It is hard – and perhaps cruel – to get responders and their agencies excited about a network which is still largely undefined and won’t be deployed for at least three more years at the earliest.

opt-in-or-out-keysClosing off Options

The Act which created FirstNet explicitly required a network plan for each state.  The Act allows the Governor of each state to “opt in” to that plan or “opt out” and have the state itself build the radio access network (RAN) – that is the towers, transmitters, fiber and microwave links etc.    At first it may seem that “opt in” should be the easy choice.  Opt-in costs a state almost no money, and doesn’t really obligate the state to commit any resources or even use FirstNet.

But, of course, no one has a real idea what FirstNet’s “state plan” will look like. First responders and SPOCs in each state will put a lot of time and effort into helping FirstNet construct that plan.  But how can a network with only $7 billion in capital to deply be able to match the coverage, capacity, apps and functionality of commercial networks which spend $20 billion or more a year to upgrade and operate their networks?  What if financial constraints mean the FirstNet state plan falls far short of responders’ expectations?

There are a number of good answers to these questions, but they are largely irrelevant.

No elected official – especially State Governors – wants to be told “this is your only choice”, that is, to “opt in”.  And no Governor will want to “opt in” to a state plan which the fire and police chiefs, Mayors and County Commissioners in a state believe is inadequate to meet their needs.

One good solution to this dilemma is to fully explore what it would take for a state to “opt out” and construct the radio access network itself.   In discussions at this meeting, many SPOCs and FirstNet staff believe that only a handful – perhaps 5 or 6 – of the mostly densely states could feasibly opt out and expect income from user fees and spectrum use fees to pay for the state’s own network.

But how do we know that’s true?  Ideally, states would use coverage modeling software and financial modeling software, plus the expertise of cellular industry consultants to build and test a variety of scenarios.   The result of such models could be an “opt out” plan for the state.  But those results would also be independent reviews and opinions on FirstNet’s own plans, thereby strengthening those plans.

Furthermore I believe the results of such modeling would quickly demonstrate the costs and obstacles a state would face in constructing the RAN itself.  Those identified issues would convince state officials and Governors that opting-out is financial folly.  Therefore most Governors will be much more comfortable in their opt-in decision.

However, NTIA has recently decided no federal grant monies (SLIGP) can be used to explore any option other than “opt in”.  FirstNet itself recently asked for review of its interpretations of the Law (“second notice”), and those interpretations also tend to restrict the ability of states to explore options to build their own.  It is clear NTIA does not want states doing coverage and financial modeling, even though such work would result in improved FirstNet plans for each state.

This ill-conceived decision by NTIA can be added to the list of other mistakes that agency has made to impede public safety’s pursuit of a nationwide public safety wireless broadband network.

A Potpourri of Observations

  • Former Governor Jim Douglas of Vermont is a phenomenal addition to the FirstNet Board. Governor Douglas keynoted the second day with a mixture of humor and substance.  He’s briefed newly elected Governors and 44 Gubernatorial Chiefs of Staff about FirstNet.  This is exactly the sort of support SPOCs need with their Governors.
  • FirstNet might allow representatives of state and local governments to help evaluate RFP responses. There are a lot of restrictions on this, but it would be a material step forward if someone other than federal government employees was involved.
  • firstnet-data-collection-larger

    Data Collection

    FirstNet is aggressively seeking to collect on-the-ground data to craft its RFP. It has asked states to query each potential user agency (for example:  police and fire department) asking about their current wireless broadband contracts, number of potential users, number and kinds of devices, coverage requirements and so forth.  (See slide 7 of this PDF.)  As with everything else FirstNet, this activity has been in progress for at least 18 months, but only released to states in March, with a demand for collection of the first data by July 31st.   I can only guess that the many layers of lawyers and approval processes internal to the Federal government elongated the timeline.

  • FirstNet is finally hiring employees in each of its regions (which mirror the FEMA regions) to more directly engage states in consultation. Steve Noel (Region 10) and Tim Pierce (Region 5) are the first two of ten to be hired.  Acting Chief Technical Officer Jeff Bratcher has also hired a great set of technical leaders for the Boulder-based FirstNet technical office.   FirstNet’s hiring timeframes continue to be atrocious – these positions were six months from announcement to getting Steve and Tim on board.  I understand the federal personnel management agency – after some spurring by Sue Swenson at March’s Senate hearing – is now allowing FirstNet to shorten some hiring processes to rapidly hire skilled staff.
  • To paraphrase George Orwell, “all states are unique – some are more unique than others”. I’m being facetious here:  we SPOCs tend to emphasize the unique challenges we each face, but, frankly, we’re not that unique.  Sure, Iowa doesn’t have tsunamis but it does have floods.  Washington doesn’t have hurricanes and Florida doesn’t have earthquakes (except sinkholes, of course).   Here’s my point:  we SPOCs need to start looking at what we have in common, how we can best support the wireless data needs of our responders, how we can work together to overcome our challenges in getting this network built, and stop raising stupid red-herring issues like procurement.  If we state government bureaucrats can’t figure out our own procurement laws to buy something vital for our first responders like FirstNet, we ought to be shot (to quote FirstNet Board Chair Sue Swenson).
  • The FirstNet Board needs to hire T. J. Kennedy as its Executive Director. The General Manager/Executive Director position has been vacant for a year now.  Kennedy has all the right background and leadership skills necessary to push this project forward, and he needs the ability to hire a deputy to help him.

A Final Thought

For the first time since the First Responder Authority was created in February, 2012, there now appears to be a clear path forward to build the network – see my timeline above.  There are many positive signs:  the aggressive move to collect data to properly craft the RFP, the impending release of the draft RFP, a promise to issue the final RFP by the end of the year, the hiring of regional staff such as Tim Pierce and Steve Noel, and the hiring of skilled technical leaders by Acting CTO Jeff Bratcher.

To some extent, the past three years with FirstNet has been like taking a train through a tunnel.  When a train goes through a tunnel and it gets dark, you don’t throw away the ticket and jump off.  You sit still and trust the engineer.  This meeting heartened me that there might be light at the end of the FirstNet tunnel.

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Municipal Broadband – Not a Walk in the Park

President Obama

President Obama supporting Municipal Broadband

President Obama recently called upon the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to use its authority to pre-empt state laws restricting municipal broadband.   At least 19 states have laws prohibiting cities from constructing municipal broadband networks providing Internet access for businesses and citizens.  Tom Wheeler, Chair of the FCC and a former telecommunications industry executive, has been publicly talking about doing just that for almost a year.   On January 22 three Democratic Senators introduced the Community Broadband Act which would explicitly make it illegal for states to prohibit “public providers” (cities, counties) from offering broadband.

But if municipal broadband is so great, why haven’t cities in the other 31 states been building broadband networks right and left?

To be fair, some cities are building high-speed broadband networks, usually with fiber optic cable to every home and business. In Chattanooga Tennessee, the Electric Power Board – a rough equivalent of Seattle City Light – has built fiber broadband and is offering gigabit (one billion bits) per second service.   In New York City, Citybridge, under the City’s authority, is replacing up to 10,000 payphones with free gigabit Wi-Fi hotspots which include free phone calls nationwide, tablet computers and charging stations.  Tacoma, Minneapolis, Riverside (California), Lafayette (Louisiana) and even places like Cedar Falls, Iowa, have municipal broadband.

2005 Report

2005 Report on Seattle Municipal Broadband

Seattle has had an on-again, off-again, love affair with the concept of a municipal broadband network (and in full disclosure, I’ve led some of that effort).  Now a local group is forming to push politicians to actually make it happen, although that campaign still lacks a nameUPTUN (Upping Technology for Underserved Neighborhoods) has long advocated for fiber broadband networks for Beacon Hill, the Central Area and nearby neighborhoods.

But, for most places in the United States, including Seattle, municipal broadband is like a shining city on a distant hill:   alluring and inspiring yet distant.

Implementing municipal broadband is not simple or easy.   In fact, the path to municipal broadband is strewn with a whole series of landmines and gotchas similar to the “simple” idea of tunneling a freeway under downtown Seattle.

People are attracted to government-owned and operated broadband networks primarily because the incumbents are so roundly despised.

The cable companies continually raise their rates.  Comcast’s rates have risen 50% faster than inflation since 1996 according to Mark Cooper of the Consumer Federation of America.   People hate their customer service, as well – the 2014 American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) rated Comcast, which serves most of Seattle, as the “worst-rated company in the worst-rated industry”.   Well, that isn’t exactly true.   Time-Warner Cable was rated worse than Comcast, but Comcast is proposing to buy Time-Warner, perhaps to cement its bottom ranking.

Telecommunications companies like CenturyLink provide some competition for the cable companies in Internet service provision.   But the ACSI rates CenturyLink, AT&T and Verizon only slightly above the cable companies.

It is an amazing situation when private citizens demand government get into competition with private companies to improve customer service and lower prices.

What benefits could city government bring to the cable business?   Here are a few:

  1. Wired broadband is a natural monopoly.
    "You could try another cable company if there was one." Jeff Stahler, 2014.

    “You could try another cable company if there was one.” Jeff Stahler, 2014.

    It is expensive to run fiber optic cable to every home and business, just as it is expensive to run gas, water, sewer and electric lines.   Most local governments either provide such monopoly services themselves, or heavily regulate the private providers, including regulation of rate increases.   But the Federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 prohibits local or state regulation of Internet service. While the law does allow local or state government regulation of cable television, it severely restricts that authority.  Local cable franchising authorities, for example, can only regulate the most basic, lowest cost, tier of service.  Municipal Broadband would be as “natural” as municipal ownership of sewer, water or other utility services.

  2. The cable industry has abused its monopoly. Susan Crawford, former technology adviser to President Obama, describes how, in 1997, the cable companies met and decided not to overbuild each other’s systems, cementing the monopoly on cable in most areas.   Comcast has purchased a number of other cable companies – including the pending purchase of Time Warner – further cementing its monopoly and profitability.  Comcast also has purchased a lot of the content delivered over cable TV channels and the Internet.   It owns or partly owns NBC Universal, Oxygen, MSNBC, History, PBS Kids, Sprout and many more producers of programming.   While all of this is legal, the continued concentration of cable networks and content leads to rising rates.   A municipal broadband network would be governed by the local elected Mayor and city council, rather than a board of directors in a faceless corporation in a distant city.
  3. Municipal broadband is good for the economically disadvantaged. A municipal network – controlled by elected officials – could offer discounts and other special services to low income residents, or for children in school, thereby reducing the digital divide and improving economic opportunity.
  4. Competition is good. If several different service providers offer any service, customer service should improve, rates should drop, and Internet speeds should increase.   We’ve seen this already, as Comcast’s rates in Tacoma are lower due to the presence of Tacoma Click (although Click! loses money).  Comcast has increased the speeds of its internet service, perhaps because CenturyLink recently announced it will provide fiber broadband to certain locations in Seattle and elsewhere, and Wave Broadband is also offering gigabit service.
  5. Theoretically, municipal broadband would have lower rates. A municipal network would not have to make profits, pay shareholders and pay exorbitant executive salaries.  Comcast’s CEO Brian Roberts made $31.4 million in 2013.  CenturyLink’s Glen Post made almost $9 million.  Comcast’s part-time directors made $173,000 each.  Seattle Mayor Ed Murray makes less than $184,000, and Seattle City Council members make less than $118,000 each.
  6. Municipal networks would be higher speed and have fewer technical problems. Cable company networks typically are fiber optic cable to each neighborhood, with older coaxial cable down streets and alleys and into each home or premise.   Coaxial cable has connectors, is made of copper (which rusts), and can be decades old, all factors contributing to poor signal quality and technical problems.   Telephone companies usually deliver their DSL broadband over copper wires with similar kinds of technical problems combined with lower speeds.   In contrast, a new network – such as those in Chattanooga, Lafayette and Cedar Falls (but not Tacoma) – would be fiber optic cable throughout.   Fiber carries signals with light, not electricity, and is much more resistant to aging and technical issues.
  7. Municipal networks can serve other city needs.
    United States at Night

    Smart Grid (photo: NIST)

    Municipal networks could support smartgrids for water and electric utilities, where all the transformers, meters, distribution centers and valves in those networks are both automated and managed via the network.   Smartgrids reduce repair times because outages can be quickly located to a specific location.  Smartgrids also allow residents to control their costs because they can see their electric or water use in real time, minute-by-minute or appliance-by-appliance.   This also supports municipal goals for conservation and reduction of climate change.

But if municipal networks are nirvana, why aren’t they also sprouting like mosquitoes in a swamp?

  1. Incumbent internet providers would oppose cities tooth-and-nail. And they have deep pockets.   Comcast has $5 billion cash on hand for lowering rates, advertising and legal expenses.
  2. A new network is expensive. Building a fiber optic network to every one of 320,000 homes, apartments and businesses in Seattle might cost $800 million or more.  Now, that’s not much compared to the $4 billion price tag of Seattle’s ill-fated tunnel under downtown – and a fiber network would serve every home and business in the City, not just cars and trucks using the tunnel.   And $800 million is roughly the equivalent of building a new football or baseball stadium.  But getting voters to approve a $800 million bond issue.
  3. Legal challenges are certain. Lafayette had numerous challenges from Bell South and Cox (Cable) Communications, with both victories and losses in district and appellate courts, but ultimately prevailed in the Louisiana Supreme court after three years of litigation.  Chattanooga did not have as much difficulty, but the Tennessee legislature passed a law limiting its ability to expand its $70 a month gigabit fiber service.   Any major city which tried to implement a fiber broadband network must be prepared to litigate for years.  And Mayors and City Council members would probably have to stand re-election during the legal battles.
  4. The business case for subscribers to pay network costs doesn’t work. A 2011 study conducted by the City of Seattle estimated a municipal broadband network – if supported solely by subscriber fees for television, Internet and telephone – might need to attract 50% of the subscribers from existing service providers.  But a company like Comcast could use its huge cash reserves to cut its rates for Seattle customers for years, essentially starving the municipal network of operating capital until elected officials either gave up or were not re-elected.  The lower rates would be great for consumers and businesses, of course.
  5. Other business models have political risk. There are other models – using a property tax or property assessment to supplement the income of the municipal broadband network.  This makes good economic sense, as a high-speed broadband network in a high-tech city should attract technology workers from Amazon, Microsoft and other companies, improving property values.   But higher property values also means higher rents and housing prices, driving middle and low-income residents from the City.   And again, such an assessment – if passed by Seattle voters – would certainly face legal challenges.  (Note:  it is clearly illegal under state law to use electric utility or water utility rates to support a broadband utility.  Electric rates cannot even be used to provide streetlights, and water rates can’t be used for water flowing through fire hydrants).
  6. Some municipalities have struggled.
    Help me Google Fiber

    Google saves Provo

    Provo, Utah, built a $39 million fiber network in 2004, but, unable to create a successful broadband utility, sold the network to Google for $1.  UTOPIA, a coalition of suburban Salt Lake City cities, has $500 million in debt but no successful network.

  7. Content costs for a municipal network will be higher. The large cable companies have tens of millions of subscribers and, as mentioned above, often own or partially own content providers such as NBC or ESPN.   Their wholesale rates for such content will be lower than the rates a city would pay.   They can also extort payments from some content providers, such as Netflix, which recently agreed to pay Comcast so its movies and video would be delivered faster and more reliably.  This “net neutrality” debate rages in Washington DC, but today provides additional income for incumbent providers.
  8. In Seattle’s case, many of these risks, plus the different business models, are clearly laid out in a 2011 study.
  9. Governments aren’t good at operating entrepreneurial businesses. Governments are great at police and parks and fire and water utilities.  But providing Internet service is a business which has changed radically in the past 20 years, and will undoubtedly change radically again over the next 20.  Is a city government nimble and flexible enough to enter such a marketplace?

Municipal broadband has captured the imagination of Barack Obama and the Federal Communications Commission.  It’s had some notable successes.  Many Seattle consumers want an alternative to the existing monopolies.  But is municipal broadband right for Seattle?   Perhaps the next study by the Murray administration will find the right mix of politics and business to make it work.

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FirstNet’s Scandal and Resurrection

[This version of the post has two updates as noted.]

McClatchy Newspaper’s Greg Gordon just wrote a well-researched investigative article about procurement problems with the nation’s First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet).  The details in the article correspond almost exactly with my mostly second-hand knowledge of the situation.   But I am hoping FirstNet and the nation can, with help, put this episode behind us and proceed to actually building a nationwide wireless broadband network for our brave responders who protect the safety of 320 million Americans.

ginn-sam

Sam Ginn

The details of this problem are well-known to insiders and, with Gordon’s article, now to the general public:

  1. In February, 2012, Congress creates FirstNet, funds it with $7 billion from sale of spectrum, and directs the appointment of a 15 member Board of Directors. The Board consists of five federal members including the Attorney General and Secretary of Homeland Security, five members from “public safety” agencies, and five members with commercial or industry background.
  2. The Secretary of Commerce appoints the Board in August, 2012. The commercial members include wireless industry veterans Sam Ginn and Craig Farrill.   The Secretary appoints Ginn as the Chair of the Board.   Neither Ginn or Farrill have previously worked in government and are unfamiliar with many of the laws, regulations and practices of government agencies.
  3. FirstNet, although an “independent agency” under the law, finds itself subordinate to the National Technology and Information Agency (NTIA), and subject to all Federal personnel and procurement regulations. The personnel regulations severely restrict how fast FirstNet can hire full-time staff.
  4. Ginn and Farrill are anxious to get the network built as rapidly as possible, just like they’ve built private companies like AirTouch in the past. They use existing federal contracts to hire a set of 35 highly skilled technical staff at large salaries – up to $600,000 a year – to get the network designed.  One of those individuals, Bill D’Agostino, is named the General Manager of FirstNet.  NTIA and the National Institute of Standards (NIST), both agencies in the Department of Commerce, apparently acquiesce to this hiring.
  5. Almost all the contract staff are former acquaintances and co-workers of Ginn and Farrill.
  6. None of the hiring, the salaries or the details of the staffing contract are known to the public or the public safety community who will be served by FirstNet.
  7. The Sheriff calls “foul” on this practice in a public meeting of the FirstNet Board. The Sheriff is Board member Paul Fitzgerald, elected Sheriff of Story County, Iowa.
  8. After gnashing of teeth and probably a bit of weeping, the contracts are canceled, the high-paid contractors are terminated and the Inspector General launches an investigation (which still hasn’t been concluded).
  9. D’Agostino, Ginn and Farrill resign.
  10. In the meantime, FirstNet, under the direction of J. Kennedy, a former cop, firefighter and paramedic, builds a competent staff of over 60 federal employees and other contractors, and gets FirstNet back on track.

Greg Gordon’s article has all the details.   Again, based on all my knowledge and discussions with individuals involved, these details are correct except for two:  First, the Public Safety Advisory Committee  (PSAC) to FirstNet has at 40 members, not 5 as Gordon mentions.  Second, the initial contract for FirstNet staffing was let by a semi-competitive solicitation in late 2012.  this is the solicitation published under the authority of the U.S. Census bureau.   I say “semi-competitive” because competition was limited to an existing set of GSA-pre-qualified contractors, not open to all bidders.  (This paragraph updated from the original post.)

So what’s the truth in this?

I think both Sam Ginn and Craig Farrill are honorable people, recruited by Larry Strickling, Director of NTIA.  Ginn and Farrill took their mission seriously.   They knew they were, essentially, in charge of a start-up company.   They knew getting the network operational was the mission.   And they set out to do it using every bit of their business skill and acumen.  They hired people who they worked with before, and who they knew could do the job.   They did not pay much heed to salaries.  “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.”

What Ginn and Farrill did not know was government.   They did not know how to run public meetings or how to respond to public disclosure requests.  Meetings occurred behind closed doors, begrudgingly televised with 1990s-era video tech.  They probably did not keep all the members of the board (e.g. Sheriff Fitzgerald) in the loop about their activities.   They either did not know about federal competitive procurement regulations or – worse yet – perhaps didn’t care.

There’s also the possibility that Ginn and Farrill were misled – that they thought the law’s statement FirstNet would be an “independent authority” under NTIA truly meant “independent” in the fashion the Tennessee Valley Authority or Bonneville Power Authority are independent.  And that’s independent from Federal Personnel regulations, the Federal Acquisition regulation (FAR) and similar constraints.  And, after they arrived, and tried to be truly independent, the boom was lowered.  (This paragraph added to the original post.)

Worst of all, they did not spend much time consulting their constituents, their future users, the cops and firefighters and other responders who need FirstNet.   They basically ignored and did not use the Public Safety Advisory Committee.

As one example of this, at the first meeting of the Board, on September 25, 2012, Farrill presented a “conceptual architecture” for FirstNet.    Where this architecture originated was a mystery to the hundreds of public safety officials – including me – who had been working on FirstNet and its predecessors for years.   Clearly Farrill was clueless about consulting constituents.

As another example, Sam Ginn famously testified in front of Congress that FirstNet would cover “every square meter” of the United States.   Mr. Ginn, honorable as he is, didn’t know much about testifying to elected officials or making promises.   There are a lot of pretty damned remote, hard-to-reach, “square meters” in the United States, some of them less than 50 miles from my home in Seattle.

paul-fitzgerald--sh

Sheriff Fitzgerald

Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald finally became fed up with this lack of consultation with public safety, and came out with a damning indictment of it during the April 23, 2013, Board meeting.   Fitzgerald, like Ginn and Farrill, is an honorable man, elected multiple times to public office, and well-versed in government.   Fitzgerald’s failing was not involving his fellow public safety Board members – Fire Chief Jeff Johnson, Deputy Police Chief Chuck Dowd, and Kevin McGinnis, a paramedic and director of emergency medical services in Maine – in his concerns prior to the meeting.  They were just as startled about his accusations as other Board members.    Most elected officials of City and County Councils and State legislatures know they need at least one other person on their side to second their motions.

Where laws broken and is criminal prosecution in the works?

I doubt it.   Commerce Department Inspector General Todd Zinser is looking into the allegations of illegal or unethical contracting practices.   Perhaps he will find some NTIA or NIST officials bent the law in allowing the high-salary contractors to work on FirstNet.   It certainly is odd (and many of us puzzled over it at the time) that the first solicitation for contractors came from the United States Census!

With the IG’s upcoming report there’s another shoe to drop here, but I hope we don’t waste a lot of time waiting for it.

T. J. Kennedy

T. J. Kennedy

Ginn, Farrill and D’Agostino left of their own volition.   Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald and Deputy Chief Chuck Dowd were not reappointed to the board.  (To some extent, I think Sheriff Fitzgerald was punished for blowing the whistle).     These are all honorable people trying to do their very best to support the public safety of the nation.   Like all of us, sometimes they make mistakes.  These key players in this drama are gone, and it’s just the mop-up of the Inspector General’s report which remains to put this scandal to bed.

I see great promise in FirstNet, and a new awakening of purpose under new Board Chair Sue Swenson’s and Acting General Manager T. J. Kennedy’s leadership.

Let’s let them lead, unburdened by the past.

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CenturyLink to Bring Gigabit Broadband to Seattle

Gig Map Click to see moreIn a remarkable announcement today, CenturyLink, formerly known as “the telephone company”, says it will bring gigabit Internet service via a fiber-to-the-home network to Seattle.

Seattle has been left at the altar of fiber-to-the-home high-speed Internet twice before — first byGoogle and then by Gigabit Squared, which isnow being sued by the City of Seattle over their breakup.

Is the third time the charm? Can Seattle Mayor Ed Murray deliver on the gigabit promise that his two predecessors, Mike McGinn and Greg Nickels, could not? Will Seattle actually see serious competition to the price-gouging tactics of the cable monopolies?

A press conference on Tuesday, scheduled 9:15 a.m. at Seattle City Hall, should tell us more.

First, a dose of reality.

(Read the rest of the post at Crosscut.)

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Why Google Fiber will never come to Seattle

google-fiberGoogle is bringing high speed fiber broadband networks to homes and businesses in three cities – Kansas City, Austin and Provo. In February, it announced 34 more cities it will approach for building fiber – Portland, Phoenix, Atlanta and more.
But not Seattle.
And Seattle won’t be making Google’s list anytime soon.
The “Seattle Process” and a balky bureaucracy at City Hall stand squarely in the way.
It wasn’t always this way. We were on the short list in 2010, when …
Read the rest of this article on Crosscut or Geekwire.

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Saving Cities from the Clutches of the Internet Monopoly

internet-monopolyOn January 14, the United States Circuit Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia ruled that telecommunications and cable companies can “play favorites” among websites, video channels and all other content providers. This decision struck down FCC rules which tried to make the Internet “neutral,” carrying all kinds of content with equal speed.

In other words, if the New York Times pays Verizon (or AT&T, or Comcast or any other company which owns wires) a fee to deliver its content, but Crosscut cannot, www.nytimes.comwill zip onto your computer screen rapidly, whilewww.crosscut.com will ever so slowly and painfully appear. Indeed, if Comcast owns NBC (which it does), NBC’s video content might zoom across Comcast’s wires into homes and businesses, while ABC, CBS, the Seattle Channeland other video feeds stumble slowly onto those same television sets.

It could get even more interesting when you go shopping. Do you want to buy a book or toys or new shoes? Well, if Wal-Mart pays Comcast and CenturyLink to deliver its content, you might seewww.walmart.com rapidly appear on your web browser, while Amazon, Sears and Macys come up slowly — or not at all.

As the Los Angeles Times headlined, “Bow to Comcast and Verizon, Your Overlords”.

All this wouldn’t be so bad, of course, if we…

[Read the rest of this post on Crosscut]

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