Category Archives: FirstNet

A Lesson for FirstNet from the Forests of the Okanogan

FirstNet and OneNet

FirstNet and OneNet

As the Washington State Point of Contact (SPOC) for the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) my team and I from the state capital, Olympia, visit first responders around Washington to inform them about and involve them with developing plans for the nationwide public safety wireless network.

As you might guess, “suits” from the distant state capital are often greeted with skepticism, especially when they arrive to talk about a federal government program.

FirstNet was created by Congress in 2012 and funded with $7 billion to construct a wireless network for responders, allowing them to securely use apps, smartphones and other mobile devices to protect the public safety.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015, we visited Okanogan County and the Colville Indian Tribes.   We spent several hours with sheriffs’ deputies, firefighters, emergency managers, mayors, tribal members and civilians from four counties and the tribal reservation.

We got an earful.

The Okanogan country has been through hell.

Okanogan Wild Fire

Okanogan Wild Fire

Two years running this area has seen successively larger wild fires.   They are the largest in the recorded history of Washington.   Hundreds of residents lost their homes.   Hundreds of people barely escaped with their lives.

Three firefighters lost their lives.   Radio communications were partly to blame.

The Okanogan country is rugged.   There are few towers for the land mobile radio networks used by deputies, police, firefighters, paramedics and utilities.  Fewer towers still for cellular services.   Most towns and areas, if they have cell service, have a single tower providing that service, with multiple carriers using it.  Backhaul (connection to the Internet) for these towers is often a single fiber optic cable line, or a single microwave link.

Fire burns through fiber optic cable, particularly if it is carried on poles.  In both of the last two years fiber melted in these fires knocked out 911 service to large parts of these counties, and terminated service on cell towers.  Heroic efforts by some of commercial cellular companies re-established service but often areas were without service for weeks.  At one point the entire government of the town of Pateros operated with just one cell phone for communications for several days.

Responders here, like those throughout the state, are skeptical of FirstNet.   Their story is illustrative of the problems FirstNet must solve in order to be successful in the 95% of the nation’s geography which is rural, remote or isolated.

The first problem is simply coverage.  Most towns have cell phone and wireless data service, and sometimes service from multiple commercial carriers.  But vast tracts of land have no service, or only service if a resident drives down the road a piece.   Many people move to these areas for the remoteness, for the beauty, for the isolation.  And, with lack of Internet or cell service, that’s exactly what they get.

Coverage affects public safety.  In many cases during these wildfires, deputies and police officers and firefighters drove from door-to-door to tell people to evacuate (such orders were often ignored, as explained below).

Cell coverage affects wild land firefighting.   When a significant fire erupts, and an incident command post is created, it is often located on a state highway with cellular service.   The highway location also allows for logistics – food and support services.  Having cell service enables not just incident command, but also allows firefighters to stay in touch with their families.

Cellular phone and data coverage is important, but too often coverage is non-existent over much of these areas in the Okanogan.

Microwave Tower

Microwave Tower

The next problem is something we call “public safety grade”.  As stated above, too often multiple commercial cellular carriers all use the same tower, and it will only have battery backup or a small generator on site as backup in case of an electrical power outage.  And it often has only one connection to the outside world via microwave or fiber optic cable.  Wildfires melt fiber, and when electrical power fails the batteries also are drained after a few hours.  Of course these failures always occur during a disaster, exacerbating communications problems.

Another problem is communications access for members of the public.  For example, the entire Colville Indian Reservation – homes, businesses, tribal government buildings – has only wireless microwave links on towers for Internet access.   But the tribal government uses Facebook pages for communicating with tribal members during emergencies, and that requires reliable Internet.  Incidentally, most non-tribal fire departments and emergency management officials also use Facebook pages for public updates.  When cell service is down, when microwave towers run out of power, communications with residents and tribal members also are eliminated.

Most other, non-tribal, communities in the Okanogan face similar challenges: single cell towers or single points of failure for connections to the Internet, and usually both.

Ing-moody-soo

Mayor Soo Ing-Moody

As a matter of fact, Mayor Soo Ing-Moody of Twisp, and other public officials in the region, have publicly complained that they often receive evacuation orders only from watching commercial television stations.

And FirstNet, wonderful as it might be, will be a responder network, with priority to first responders.   The public is left out in the cold (or, in the case of wildfires, in the hot seat).   FirstNet will provide no direct communications for the public.  When their cell service fails, when the power to microwave towers serving the Colville Tribe are gone, they are “in the dark” for communications.

Finally, there is great skepticism about FirstNet phased development plans.   Residents of the Okanogan are used to getting hand-me-downs.  Although this area has a significant second-home population and tourist trade, commercial cellular companies always build in urban areas first.  Service is the Okanogan is rarely – and slowly – improved.  And that is exactly FirstNet’s present plan – build in urban areas first.

There is great skepticism about FirstNet’s promises:   better coverage, public-safety-grade coverage, for equal or less cost.  All while having a user base 5% the size of Verizon or AT&T (perhaps 5 million subscribers to cover the network’s costs, rather than more than 100 million users).   What sort of business plan magic is this?  Exactly how does that work?

Given all these challenges, local public safety and elected officials are justifiably skeptical of a federal agency, FirstNet, which comes and promises a new wireless data network for responders.

But, as always, great problems spawn great opportunity.   How can FirstNet seize this opportunity to help the people living in these remote areas?

  1. Mobile Cell Site

    Mobile Cell Site

    Deployables. The only real solution to improving coverage – especially in unpopulated areas subject to wild fires – is a robust deployable strategy.  Deployables are cell sites which would be rapidly be set up and activated when needed.  These deployables might be cell-on-wheel (COW) trucks like the commercial carriers have, or they might be cell sites carried on existing police vehicles and fire apparatus, or they might be backpackable cell sites which can be carried or driven to mountaintop locations.   Perhaps there are yet-to-be-fully-developed deployable strategies like Google’s Project Loon (balloons), drone-based cell sites (although those potentially interfere with firefighting airplanes), or low-earth orbit satellites.

But people in the Okanogan are skeptical of fragile new technology which tends to fail when it is needed most.  Satellite is slow and expensive.  And again, who pays for all this, and maintains it?    Where is it based – locally or in some distant state?

FirstNet must have a robust plan for deployables.  Ideally, such a plan would include the ability for local firefighters and state agencies to rapidly pull out the equipment, set it up, and have wireless connectivity where they need it.

  1. Public safety grade. To be “public safety grade”, cell sites in remote areas must have at least two separate connections to the outside world, for example a fiber line and a microwave link, or two fiber lines running in separate directions.  Public safety grade sites must withstand potential earthquakes or fires.   Such sites must be able to operate for many days, if not weeks, disconnected from electric utilities by using generators or solar panels.

In most cases FirstNet could “beef up” existing commercial sites by adding those features, saving scarce dollars.

  1. Access for residents. In the law which created it, Congress expressly prohibited FirstNet from offering service to businesses or consumers.  However, in a disaster when lives are at stake, such niceties as that law are ludicrous.   But there are ways to stay within the law but also address the problems mentioned by Mayor Ing-Moody and the Colville Tribes for informing their residents and tribal members.  Here are specific ideas:

(1)  When constructing the additional backhaul links above, allow tribes and local communities to use the connections for their Internet access.  For example, let’s suppose there is a cell tower with one existing microwave link to the outside world.  FirstNet could add a fiber optic line to that tower, making it more resilient – public safety grade.  Installing 24 fibers is only a tiny bit more expensive than installing two fibers.   The additional fibers could be used by tribes and remote communities for high speed internet access for their residents and tribal members.

Sonim Phone - a Band 14 Device

Sonim Phone – a Band 14 Device

(2)  FirstNet spectrum in every device.  FirstNet will operate on a specific set of 700 Megahertz frequencies called “Band 14”.   Very few smart phones or tablet computers have Band 14 built into them today.  But let’s suppose every smart phone and tablet computer sold in the United States in the future had Band 14 built in.   If such a device was used by a first responder – a volunteer firefighter or search and rescue volunteer or other public safety professional – they would easily be able to use FirstNet.  But in real disasters, when commercial services are down, responders and elected officials could activate band 14 in every device, thereby alerting citizens to danger or to evacuate.   Indeed, in incidents like hostage-taking and school lockdowns, responders could use Band 14 to securely talk to victims and teachers to rapidly assess situations.

FirstNet holds great potential to improve public safety in the many disasters and daily incidents we face.  But elected officials and responders throughout the nation are skeptical of promises without concrete plans to address the real problems faced by our communities.   FirstNet, in developing its plans for each state, needs to address the concerns of these officials through innovative, realistic, strategies which make a real difference in the lives of people throughout each state.

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Filed under disaster, emergency operations, FirstNet, OneNet, radio

How Tech Could Improve Wildland Firefighting

The deaths of three wildland firefighters Aug. 19 in Okanogan County, Wash., is both painful and tragic. Unfortunately the deaths of these firefighters is only the latest in a series of firefighter deaths from wildfires.

On June 28, 2013, nineteen Arizona firefighters lost their lives when winds suddenly shifted in the Yarnell Hill fire. An airtanker carrying flame retardant was directly overhead at the time of the tragedy, but radio communications were both spotty and overloaded.

The Thirty-Mile Fire in 2001 in Okanogan County claimed the lives of four firefighters. The firefighters violated several rules of wildland firefighting, but radio communications difficulties also prevented nearby helicopter support from reaching them.
How can modern technology help in fighting these fires and keeping firefighters out of harm’s way?

(Read the rest of this post on Geekwire here.)

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Filed under drones, firefighting, FirstNet, Internet of Things, OneNet, radio, wireless

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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The Internet of First Responder Things (IoFRT)

IoT-toasterThe “Internet of Things” or IoT is a common buzzword in the technology community these days.  It refers to the increasingly prevalent distribution of sensors throughout the natural world, and the connection of those sensors – as well as other machines – to the Internet.

The running joke is that IoT is about putting your home refrigerator, thermostat, washer, dryer, microwave, range, TVs, computers, smart phones and even toasters on the Internet, or at least connecting them so they can talk to each other.  Now what a toaster would say to a TV, or what the conversations between a washer and a dryer might include, could certainly make for a lot of talk show jokes and lists on a David Letterman show (should he return).

But clearly creating such an “Internet of Household Things” or IoHT would be quite useful.  Take, for example, the urgent water crisis in California and throughout most of the West.   If you could add sensors to every water fixture in the house, and then connect those sensors to computers and smartphones, you could determine where your water is being used and take steps to cut back use.   Going one step further, if those water sensors also had valves, you could control your household water use from anywhere in the world.  So when your teenager’s shower has gone over five minutes in length, you could abruptly get a notification and then shut off the water (or turn on the cold water full blast) from your hotel room in Hong Kong.

How might this Internet of Things concept apply to First Responders – the paramedics and firefighters and police officers who respond to our 911 calls?

I recently had a twitter conversation about this with Ray Lehr, former fire chief in Baltimore, and former FirstNet State Point of Contact (SPOC) for Maryland.  Ray suggested we should start talking about the Internet of Life Saving Things (IoLST) which I morphed into a possible Internet of First Responder Things (IoFRT).

There are many applications for the IoFRT, and I’d guess they fall into several buckets:

  • First Responder Personal Things – the sensors and equipment which would be on or near a First Responder to help that officer do the job and keep the officer safe.
  • 911 Caller and Victim Things – these sensors would help alert 911 centers and responders to problems so First Responders can quickly and accurately respond to calls for assistance.
  • Information and Awareness Things – these sensors and machines would improve public safety by monitoring the natural and built environments.
SPD-cars-and-uniforms

Seattle Police Body Worn Video

“First Responder Personal Things” would include a variety of sensors and communication devices.  Body worn video cameras – so much in the news recently after the events in Ferguson, Missouri – are one example of an IoFRT device.  Most such cameras today record their video and hold it in the device.  But if wirelessly connected to the Internet (by, say, FirstNet), a police commander, 911 center and other authorized users could see the video in real time to advise and support the officer.

A police officer’s badge or other apparel might have a small radio which broadcasts a signal unique to that officer, which allows many other communication devices (smart phone, radio, tablet computer) to automatically recognize the officer and therefore allow access to restricted databases such as criminal history.  A similar situation for a paramedic would allow her/him access to restricted patient files and healthcare history.

A police officer’s weapon could have a sensor which only allows it to be fired if it is personal possession of the officer.  Firefighters – especially those fighting long, sustained, wild fires, would have an array of sensors to monitor heart rate, respiration, ambient air quality, etc., alerting the firefighter and incident commander to firefighters who are overworked or in dangerous situations.

“911 Caller and Victim Things” would include those sensors on a victim or in their home or place of business which help to monitor and protect them.   Medical sensors are an obvious application:  people with a history of heart disease, stroke, diabetes or other conditions would have such sensors which would immediately alert them and their healthcare providers to impending problems.  Such sensors might further alert 911 centers for dispatch of emergency medical technicians to an immediate problem.

Vulnerable people in high crime areas might have sensors or video cameras which could be activated at a moment’s notice when they come into dangerous situations.   Many homes and businesses are now equipped with video cameras, movement sensors and other sensors.  A 911 call from the premise (or other activation by the owner) could give 911 centers and responding officer’s immediate access to the telemetry and video from those cameras.

Finally, General Motor’s OnStar gives us a premonition of the technology which will go into vehicles in the future.  Vehicles which communicate with roads or automatically notify 911 centers after an accident, to include transmission of telemetry and video are definitely in the future.

“The Internet of Information and Awareness Things” is both more fascinating and frightening.  Applications to support 911 response can be harnessed to many of these “things”.

Seattle-police-video-drone

Seattle Police Demonstrate a UAV aka “drone”

For example, Video surveillance cameras are becoming less expensive and more ubiquitous.   Surveillance camera systems deployed by cities and counties receive significant scrutiny and attention from the ACLU and city/county councils such as the brouhaha surrounding Seattle’s attempted deployment of a $5 million system.  The use of unpiloted aerial vehicles with cameras is just starting deployment.  But most such cameras are in the hands of businesses and private individuals, as demonstrated by the identification the Boston marathon bombers.  Powerful new technology tools are becoming available for automated analysis of video, for examples automated license plate recognition, facial recognition and object recognition.  We aid and abet this analysis by gleefully tagging faces in our Facebook photos, all of which Facebook uses to build its database of known faces.  The largest license plate recognition databases are in private hands.  In the near future every human being is likely to be recognized and tracked (and NOT by governments) whenever we are outside our own homes.

In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Department of Homeland Security was created.  Fearing potential chemical, biological and nuclear terrorist attacks, it deployed a network of sniffers and sensors in cities and other potential targets.  Similar technologies and networks could be deployed to support first responders.

For example, every load of hazardous material being transported by road, air or rail could be tagged and tracked.  Every hazmat container stored in a building could also be identified and tracked, with firefighters watching them pop up on a tablet computer app when they respond to an event in the building.

We could even tag every can of spray paint or every cigarette lighter as the combination of those two items, plus a healthy dose of stupidity (which, alas, cannot yet be tagged) contributes to major home fires like this one.

It is now easy to imagine a world like that depicted by George Orwell in his novel 1984, where surveillance is both nefarious and ubiquitous, fueled by a government (probably controlled by private companies) out of control.

Like so many other choices faced by our early 21st Century society, the Internet of First Responder Things hold both great promise and some peril.   Elected officials and chiefs of responder agencies will have many decisions to make over the next few years.

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Filed under 911, FirstNet, government operations, Internet of Things, Seattle Police

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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Will FirstNet become the next Healthcare.gov?

FirstNet-Innovate

FirstNet Must be Innovative

On October 1, 2013, the website healthcare.gov opened for business.   This website was the centerpiece of the Affordable Care Act (“ACA” commonly known as “Obamacare”).    ACA is one of the signature achievements of President Barack Obama.   Certainly the core of Obamacare would have the latest in innovative technology, interactivity and customer experience, right?

Healthcare.gov’s debut was a bomb.

But then healthcare.gov was resurrected.   Through an extraordinary effort the website was rapidly fixed and rebuilt by a top-notch team who were freed from most of the stultifying bureaucracy and regulations of the Federal Government.

Today another signature achievement of the Obama Administration – the First Responder Network Authority – appears headed down a path similar to the original healthcare.gov.   We can recognize the danger signs.   Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker and other administration officials have the authority to free FirstNet from the shackles of “Fedgov” allowing it to innovatively accomplish its mission of creating a nationwide public safety wireless broadband network for our responders.

But will they act?

FirstNet must be Innovative

Martin Cooper and the first cell phone

Martin Cooper and the first cell phone

In the 1980s, Craig McCaw recognized the potential of cellular phone networks and, starting with a single small cable company in Centralia, Washington, built an $11 billion nationwide wireless network, earning the name “the wizard of wireless”.

Also in the 1980s a Harvard drop-out named Bill Gates purchased a piece-of-crap operating system named 86-DOS and used it to build a powerhouse company, Microsoft, which today still dominates the desktops of the entire world.

In the first decade of the 21st Century Steve Jobs took a company on the edge of bankruptcy and transformed it into the largest company in the world through three startling innovations: the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad.

Today we have a company which has an opportunity to transform the operations of every government agency – local, state and federal – while at the same time radically improving the safety and security the United States’ 330 million people.   This company doesn’t need to invent anything new.  All it has to do is follow in the footsteps of Craig McCaw, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, and adapt their innovations for government.

This “company” is the First Responder Network Authority – FirstNet.

FirstNet was born in 2012 from the hopes and dreams of cops and firefighters and paramedics and emergency managers nationwide.  But, increasingly, it is burdened with risk-adverse lawyers, saddled with outmoded rules and regulations, chained to the very insider Washington, D.C. bureaucracies so derided by Republicans, Democrats and everyday citizens.

FirstNet was created on February 22, 2012 and funded with $7 billion to build a nationwide public safety wireless network, following in the footsteps of pioneers of the wireless industry – people like Craig McCaw and Sam Ginn.    FirstNet was charged with creating a nationwide architecture and a plan to develop the network in each state.  The Governor of each state can then make a decision whether to allow that plan to proceed.

The evidence for FirstNet’s difficulties is abundant.

Three years later, FirstNet has less than 100 full-time employees, does not have a permanent executive director and – odd for a technology company – does not have a permanent chief technology officer.   Most of the full-time employees are transfers or on detail from other federal government departments – competent and dedicated to be sure – but few with recent experience, on the ground, with local and state government responder agencies.

Today – three years after the law created FirstNet – the agency plans to issue a draft RFP by the end of March, and perhaps a final RFP by the end of 2015.  Given the extraordinary complexity of such an RFP (“build a nationwide wireless network in 55 states and territories serving all local, state and federal first responders”), responses to the RFP probably won’t come in until mid-2016.  The evaluation of the responses might take another year, and the final state plans another 6 to 12 months after that.  It is likely to be 2018 – six years after FirstNet was created – before the network implements anywhere.  And, of course, there could be protests after the contract award is announced, lengthening these times.

In the meantime, the technology industry is innovating and changing at a record place.  While FirstNet writes an RFP in 2015, who knows what the wireless, smart phone, tablet computer, Internet-of-Things, connected and autonomous vehicle industries will look like in 2018?  Noted wireless industry Chetan Sharma thinks 5G networks will be implementing at that time, while FirstNet implements 2015 or earlier technology.

Is there a way to change the direction of this impending train derailment?

We have at least the one recent federal government derailment to guide us.

Healthcare.gov.

Healthcare.govLessons from Healthcare.gov

The Affordable Care Act had the noble vision of affordable healthcare insurance for all Americans.  It was passed by Congress in March, 2010, and implemented in October 1, 2013.  But the technology and website had numerous difficulties and problems.  While the original cost of the website was probably about $500 million, the overall cost after fixes probably reached $1.7 billion.

There are many reasons for this initial failure:  much-too-detailed requirements, many changes during the implementation, many subcontractors, no single prime contractor, diffuse oversight by bureaucrats in the federal Department of Health and Human Services (who, frankly, had no experience in managing such a pioneering project) and more.

But healthcare.gov, despite the technological failures of its initial roll-out, was rescued by a series of unorthodox – and innovative – measures by the federal government.    President Obama, recognizing this abysmal situation with his signature accomplishment, called in a group of geeks from Silicon Valley, many of whom had helped build the technology which won two of his elections.  To oversee the fix, he called in folks like Kurt DelBene, who had built Microsoft Office into one of the most widely used software products in the world.  (And DelBene has a lot of experience with bureaucracies – having engaged with one of the worst internally at Microsoft.)

This team both fought and made peace with the risk-adverse bureaucrats who oversaw healthcare.gov. They used innovative techniques like cloud services from Amazon Web Services.   They implemented agile development practices to do short sprints of software fixes and upgrades, a vastly different philosophy than the slow, painful, requirements-RFP-evaluation-development-implementation process used on most federal government projects.

And they fixed healthcare.gov in a matter of months.

18F

18F of the GSA

This one success has rippled through the federal government.   Innovative, agile, processes are starting to creep into the slow-moving federal bureaucracy.  The Government Services Administration (GSA) now has an agile development team with its 18F unit.   The White House has launched the United States Digital Service to serve as a tech “SWAT” to help struggling tech projects.   Even the staid, conservative, CIA has enthusiastically adopted cloud services and rapid development techniques (although, in fairness, it has been quite innovative in past with projects like intellipedia).

Today FirstNet.gov is heading down the same path as the original Healthcare.gov.

But can we fix it now, since we see the problems coming?

Absolutely.

The Fix

The Fix

The Fix

Here’s one roadmap to a fix:

More freedom and independence, not more regulations and oversight.   The reaction of a typical bureaucracy to any problem is to clamp down the restrictions – add more lawyers for legal review, more layers of approval, more oversight.   In the high tech, rapidly moving world of wireless communications and applications, that’s exactly the wrong approach, yet it is the one the federal government has taken.   The Obama Administration has proved itself to be fast-moving and innovative in many initiatives, and it needs to take the same approach with FirstNet.

Independent authority.”   Congress has already provided direction on this – it created FirstNet as an “independent authority” within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.  Congress wants FirstNet to be innovative and extraordinary, not just another Federal agency.

Adopt agile.  Every private technology company is using agile techniques to develop products and services.  Agile techniques have been adopted by 18F, the U.S. Digital Service and a few other agencies.  Christopher Webster and Max Romanik have written an ground-breaking blog post demonstrating how agile can be applied to public safety.  FirstNet too can adopt agile to transform its approach.

Full-time staff.  FirstNet has difficulties hiring full-time employees, probably due to the constraints of the federal personnel hiring process of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and to delays in obtaining security clearances. As an “independent authority” FirstNet should be granted relief from the OPM personnel processes allowing it to hire employees who have local and state responder experience, agile development skills and technical staff with recent experience in the commercial telecommunications industry.

Contract staffing difficulties.   Much of the expertise FirstNet needs will require salary levels beyond those available in the federal personnel system.   Recognizing this, NTIA has provided contracts and contract staffing for many of the technical positions.  However NTIA made a number of mistakes in these staffing contract procurements, resulting in a Department of Commerce Inspector General (OIG) investigation.   As a consequence, FirstNet has lost most of the individuals with technical expertise which it used in 2013-2014.  Hiring of replacement staff has been quite slow, probably due to onerous rules put in place by NTIA staff to prevent a repeat of the problems cited by OIG.   Conversely, healthcare.gov rapidly hired staff from the technology industry to rebuild its website.   FirstNet should be freed to adopt the same model.  As an “independent authority” FirstNet should be allowed to rapidly hire technical contract staff through legal contract mechanisms and using its own internal controls independent from external ones imposed by NTIA.

Roadmap

FirstNet Roadmap – Click to see more

Unknown FirstNet Business Plan.  The $7 billion funding available to FirstNet is not sufficient to develop and operate its network.   The maximum likely user base – five to seven million users – will be insufficient, through user fees alone, to operate and enhance the network.  FirstNet plans to leverage income from the secondary use of its spectrum by commercial entities which will provide services to consumers and businesses.  FirstNet leadership states there is a business plan to use these income sources to develop, expand, enhance and upgrade the network.  But the details of such a plan are unknown outside FirstNet’s Board and immediate staff.   FirstNet could engage and trust states to more completely develop this business plan to drive the RFP process and marketing of the network to public safety entities.

Remove the useless oversight.   FirstNet must render an annual report to Congress.   It’s most recent report – due out February 23rd – still has not been published.  Why?   Because it has to be reviewed by at least 10 different federal agencies!   Why are employees of the FCC and the Department of Justice and even the Department of Commerce reviewing that report?   What value is being added to the speed or quality of the project?  FirstNet is an “independent authority”.   Its customers are cops and firefighters and paramedics and other responders.  A bunch of federal bureaucracies should not stand between it and reporting to Congress or between it and first responders.

Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR).  The FAR is a detailed, lengthy and often onerous regulation designed to guarantee fair procurements by the Federal government.   However the FAR also inadvertently discriminates toward single procurements from large nationwide companies with substantial legal and contracting staff resources.   Consequently smaller, innovative, local or regional companies often will not be successful in FAR-managed procurements.  Furthermore, the FAR effectively prevents innovative partnerships between FirstNet, private companies and states, local and tribal entities to build the NPSBN at a local or regional scale.  FirstNet, as an “independent authority” could be granted relief from certain aspects of the FAR to allow more innovative partnerships and local procurements.

Partnerships with early builders, tribal nations and states.  In any technology-based project, the idea of prototypes, beta and initial implementations are critical. Multiple projects (pilots, if you will), combined with active integration and expansion, will reap significantly more benefit than waiting for a single massive implementation project for the entire nation.   FirstNet could seek partnerships with the existing early builder projects (Adams County Colorado, Los Angeles, New Jersey, New Mexico and Harris County Texas) and their states to expand and enhance those projects to serve larger geographic areas and user communities.   Other states, multi-state regions, and tribal nations may seek to partner with FirstNet and private companies to build the network within their borders.  Such partnerships could serve other public purposes, e.g. providing high speed broadband to consumers and businesses (as secondary users) in underserved, rural and tribal areas.

FirstNetIs the Federal Government Bold Enough to allow FirstNet to Succeed?

FirstNet is a noble effort.  Its network, the cutting-edge devices it will put in the hands of responders and the rapidly evolving public safety apps which will be born in this ecosystem will transform very nature of response, investigation and recovery during public safety incidents and outages and disasters, just as smart phones and tablet computers have transformed the lives of hundreds of millions of consumers and business in the United States and around the world.

But is the federal government courageous enough to unleash FirstNet?  Gutsy enough to trust FirstNet’s Board and its management and its web of supporters in local and state government and private industry?   Trusting enough of Congress’ intent to make FirstNet a truly “independent authority” and then watch it succeed?

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FirstNet: More Choices than Just Opt-in/out

FirstNet LogoThis blog was originally posted on Medium.com on February 7, 2015

The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) was created by Congress in 2012 and funded with $7 billion to deploy a nationwide wireless network dedicated to public safety. But Congress also attached many strings to FirstNet. One of the major requirements is the creation of a plan to deploy FirstNet in each state. That State Plan — created in consultation with public safety responders in that state — is then presented to the Governor of that State for an explicit decision: opt-in and allow FirstNet to proceed, or opt-out. Technically if the Governor “opts out” the state itself is supposed to build the network in the state, with some financial support from the First Responder Network Authority.

But are opt-in or opt-out the only “options”?

Hell no.

(Read the rest of this post on Medium.)

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