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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Filed under broadband, google, internet

Schrier’s Technology Wish List for 2015

Predicting the Future

Predicting the Future

It’s that time of year again where the top ten lists for the old year spurt out of pundits’ pens along with generally wrong prognostication predictions (that is “guesses”) for the next year.

I’m not very good at either figuring out which recent changes are most significant (I’ll bet the iPhone was one) or predicting what will happen during my day tomorrow, much less 365 days in the future.

But I’m not too bad at looking at the state of technology – especially in government – and wishing for what I’d like to see in the near future.

And here they are:

  • government (including its workers) embracing the cloud,
  • more women in tech,
  • police body-worn video cameras,
  • video recognition software and
  • last, but most important, wise elected officials.

Government Embracing the Cloud

Embracing the Cloud

Embracing the Cloud

Cloud services are the “next hot thing” in technology.  Or they were the next thing hot thing in 2010.

Jeff Bezos of Amazon – along with a number of other technology leaders – believes that very few private companies and governments will operate their own data centers in the future.   This is undeniably true simply because cloud service providers such as Amazon Web Services (AWS) have a tremendous economy of scale.  AWS probably has more than five million servers worldwide.  Every day – 365 days a year – Amazon Web Services installs more server capacity than the entire Amazon e-tailing enterprise had online in 2004.   And AWS has won notable contracts, such as the contract to operate the CIA’s data center.

Seattle has become a hotbed of cloud technology over the past 18 months.  The Seattle area has a number of the major players in this space such as Amazon, Microsoft Azure, CenturyLink, Google, and now even Dropbox and Apple.  The list includes a number of “niche” companies such as Taser International’s Evidence.com which supports cloud hosting of law enforcement data such as body-worn video data and Socrata, the leading cloud service for government open data.

Yet governments have been slow to adopt cloud technologies.  Governments continue to build and operate their own data centers, containing a few hundred servers, and operate much less efficiently than cloud services providers.   While some governments use cloud services such as Accela for permitting, Workday for human resources, and Socrata for open data, most applications continue to live in expensive government-owned data centers operated by government employees.

Why?

Part of the reason government is slow to adopt the cloud is perceived security concerns:  unless the applications data are on disk arrays and servers which government CIOs can touch and feel and see behind the doors of their very own data centers, these officials feel that, somehow, the hackers will get to them.   This concern is patently absurd, as cloud providers such as Microsoft and Amazon can afford to employ hundreds of security professionals compared to the handful in most governments.

Another problem is potential loss of jobs for workers who presently staff government data centers.   However governments badly need employees who will adapt new technologies for government businesses, who will code new web applications and apps for consumers and businesses to better do business with the government.   Government agencies are chronically short of such developers who, by the way, make a lot more money than data center operators and server administrators.   A retraining program for such government technology employees coupled with a move to the cloud will benefit everyone – taxpayers, businesses, government officials and tech employees.

It’s long past time for a wholesale move of government technology to cloud services.

More Women Coders and Women in Technology

Grace Hopper, Inventor of COBOL

Grace Hopper, Inventor of COBOL

I recently had the chance to visit a cloud services development company in the Seattle area.   The company had a variety of very leading edge practices, such as small team environments, self-directed teams, and superior compensation.    They bragged about their employee interview process:  they accepted about 1% of the people who applied or were recruited.

The place was entirely white and Asian-American men.    Well, there was a woman at the front desk.

Now, perhaps it is true that only young males have the interest and ambition to pursue coding.   But having an all young-white-male environment in any business anywhere is not good, for a whole variety of reasons:  all-male business cultures give rise to frat-house-like cultures such as apparently happened at Zillow.    With incomes stagnant or dropping for middle-income people, coding and app development are one of the few areas with tremendous growth in skills and wages – it is important this growth be shared by people of all genders.   Seattle, in particular, seems to have the widest pay gap between women and men.

There are probably many reasons for this disparity.  Perhaps our educational system needs to better emphasize technology careers for girls.   Maybe we need more tech savvy teachers in general, so we don’t have to import so much tech talent via the H1B visa program.  And we certainly need to embrace programs such as the “hour of code” evangelized by Seattle’s code-dot-org.

In fact, linking this problem back to the one above (governments’ need to embrace the cloud), perhaps we should start with an hour of code for all government workers – not just information technology workers, mind you, but ALL government workers.

Ubiquitous Use of Police Body Cams

body-worn-go-pro-wrist

Body Worn Video Camera (sort of) courtesy Go-Pro

President Obama’s December 1 announcement of funding for equipping 50,000 police officers with body-worn video is an innovative approach to improving public safety.   This initiative follows several tragic events such as those in Ferguson, Missouri.   Certainly the idea of recording most police-citizen interactions is appealing.

In a time of polarization about the role of the police in our communities, the use of body-worn video cameras seems to have universal support.   The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) dislikes video surveillance in general but likes body-worn cameras because they hold police officers accountable for their actions.   Police Unions like them because they hold citizens accountable for their actions – in two small studies, civilian complaints against police officers declined by 60% to 88% after implementation of body-cams.  Police officers like them because 98% or 99% of what the police do is overwhelming supportive of people in the community – saving drivers during auto accidents, breaking up domestic violence in homes, helping the homeless.  The Department of Justice likes the cameras, as do elected officials.    And they appear to work:  one DOJ study found showed use of force by officers declined by 60%, and violence from citizens against police also declined.   Prosecutors like video, as it helps establish and support criminal charges.

But, as in everything else, implementing body-worn video is not a panacea for improving policing.   I’ve written earlier about the difficulties of implementing such a program, so I won’t rehash those here.    And others have written about a variety of other problems such as the potential for “constant on” video cameras to create a surveillance state worse than even George Orwell envisioned.

Video Recognition and Indexing Software

Video video everywhere, underground and in the air.

Video cameras are becoming more and more ubiquitous.   Most of the population now carries a video camera on their person with them all the time.  Video surveillance cameras are in wide use in both private businesses and by public agencies such as Departments of Transportation.   A billion people use YouTube, which has 4 billion views each day and 100 hours of video uploaded each second.   And that’s just one video site!

But, like the thousands of unindexed photographs most people have lurking somewhere on hard drives and smart phones, video is hard to index and identify for future use.   Content recognition software is still inadequate – basically under development.

Good content recognition software will serve a variety of useful purposes – it could detect unauthorized use of copyrighted material, could recognize individuals and objects thereby indexing the clips, and could form the basis for databases of video metadata.   Such databases would useful for a variety of purposes such as indexing all that video of your family gatherings for the past 20 years, or storage and retrieval of police body-worn camera video.   Video is quite useful in solving crimes – video from private companies were used to solve the Boston Marathon terrorism and police dashcam video caught Christopher Monfort, alleged killer of Seattle Police Officer Tim Brenton on October 31, 2009.

A Wise Official

A Wise Official

Like audio or voice-recognition software, which is really still in its infancy, good video recognition software is a two edged sword, presenting privacy concerns as well as the useful purpose.

Conclusion

As always, these technology changes will outstrip the ability of our elected leaders to enact laws to deal with the resulting cultural and legal issues.   We demonstrated that this past year with all the controversies surrounding Uber and other car-sharing services in cities across the globe.   We see it in the constant struggle between public safety and privacy.

My final “wish” is for elected officials wise enough to embrace the positive power of new technologies, while controlling the negative implications.    And having the wisdom to know the difference.

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Filed under employees, future of technology, government, government operations, jobs, video

Inside the First-ever Seattle Police Hackathon

Henry Kroll Demonstrates Redaction

Henry Kroll Demonstrates Redaction

The Seattle Police Department (SPD) held its first-ever hackathon on Friday, December 19th. The event was focused on a single problem: How to redact the video streams recorded by police officers from their dashcams and (soon) body-worn video cameras.

More than 80 people filled the room from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. About one-third were technology professionals or part-timers like Henry Kroll, who makes a living as a salmon fisherman but focuses on video and other technology issues in his spare time.  The remainder were Seattle police and other public officials, a few members of the community, and a number of people from local companies such as Amazon Web Services and Evidence.com, plus a substantial media presence from local television stations and newspapers.

Seven teams made presentations and demonstrations …

Read the rest of this article on Geekwire here.

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Filed under government operations, hackathon, Law Enforcement, Seattle Police, video

Will Obama’s Body-worn Video Cams for Cops really Work?

Body-Worn Video

Seattle Police with Vievu Video Camera

(This post originally appeared in Crosscut here. This version is more expanded and detailed.)

President Obama is redirecting at least $75 million in federal funding to buy body-worn video cameras for up to 50,000 police officers.   This initiative is driven partially by recent shootings of unarmed citizens in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City.   Seattle’s Crosscut has extensively reported on this issue.

Since the cameras are relatively inexpensive – a few hundred to a thousand dollars each – police departments around the nation should be able to rapidly and deploy this useful technology, right?

Wrong.

Police Officer Darren Wilson’s killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, has ignited a nationwide interest in the potential use of body-worn video cameras by police.   The Ferguson Police Department itself purchased and deployed such cameras for all of its officers just three weeks after the incident.   Other police departments from around the country joined this the body-cam bandwagon.

In a time of polarization about the role of the police in our communities, the use of body-worn video cameras seems to have universal support.   The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) dislikes video surveillance in general but likes body-worn cameras because they hold police officers accountable for their actions.   Police Unions like them because they hold citizens accountable for their actions – in two small studies, civilian complaints against police officers declined by 60% to 88% after implementation of body-cams.   Police management likes to use such video because it helps build public trust in law enforcement by showing accountability.   Many officers like video cameras because most of what they do is helping people – saving lives, performing CPR, protecting the vulnerable during serious crimes such as assaults and domestic violence – but this side of the work is rarely mentioned in the media.  The Department of Justice likes the cameras, as do elected officials.    And they appear to work:  one DOJ study found showed use of force by officers declined by 60%, and violence from citizens against police also declined.   Prosecutors like video, as it helps establish and support criminal charges, although evidence for such support is unclear (DOJ 2014 Study, page 7).

This trend is also good for Seattle, as two of the major companies working on police video technology have offices here.  Seattle’s VIEVU is a major supplier of the cameras themselves.   Taser International is headquartered in Phoenix but its cloud-services operation, evidence.com, is located in downtown Seattle.    Evidence.com stores video and serves it to both police departments and (when authorized) others such as attorneys and citizens.

The trouble is, it is difficult to widely deploy body-worn video cameras given a wide variety of technological and legal challenges.   Here are a few:

  1. Deploying cameras involves almost every unit within a police department. Besides patrol, police management will be involved, as will internal affairs, the legal staff, technology staff, evidence custodians, civilian staff involved with public disclosure and a number of outside agencies such as courts, prosecutors and public defenders.  This takes a lot of time and effort,
  2. Body-cams have an effect on the efficiency of patrol officers. On one hand police reports may be easier to write and charges easier to file because video shows at least part of the police interactions, statements by victims and witnesses, at the arrest.   On the other hand officers and supervisors will spend time reviewing video, a new task in their workdays.
  3. Body-cam video creates a huge volume of digital material. Seattle Police, for example, has a total of over 500 patrol officers.  If each officer works 40 hours a week, and the body-cam video is constantly recording, this represents 20,000 hours of video a week.  Of course most video systems are set up to record only at certain times, for example when the officer turns on the recording or (in the case of dashcam video) when the overhead lights are turned on during an incident or traffic stop.  But officer discretion also presents a number of problems.  Often incidents happen very fast – an officer sees a crime in progress and immediately responds to stop or apprehend the offender.  Officers may not have time to stop and turn on the video system because to do so places either the officer or a citizen in danger.   No matter what the policy for having the video operational, at the very least hundreds of hours of video will be produced each week.
  4. Police work occurs during abysmal conditions: rain, snow, traffic noise, night-time.   Audio and video quality often will be poor.
  5. Body-cam video presents major technology challenges. There are a whole variety of these, for examples:
    • Maintaining an adequate amount of disk storage;
    • Acquiring fast servers to immediately serve the video on demand;
    • Backing up the video to preserve it in case of disk storage failure;
    • Protection from intentional or inadvertent alteration;
    • Protection from intentional or inadvertent access, e.g. hacking or access by unauthorized employees or the public prior to redaction;
    • Creating a system to manage the video. Often this might include disk storage on the officer to hold the video, followed by offloading the video to a computer in the car, followed by offloading the video to data center servers when the car returns to a secure area.
    • Adding metadata so the video is easily searchable. Metadata attached to each video clip might include date, time, officers’ names, victims’ names, witness’ names, and case numbers.
  6. Video presents a major public disclosure issue. The Washington Public Records Act and the State Supreme Court’s decision in the case “KOMO-TV versus the Seattle Police Department” state these videos are public, except when a case is under investigation.   But such video captures, real-time, the trauma of often-innocent citizens who are crime victims, victims of domestic violence and rape, having a medical emergency and who are being detained or arrested – often when charges are later dropped.   The videos include statements from witnesses, victims, confidential informants and sometimes attorney-client privileged conversations.  A minority of the Supreme Court, in the KOMO decision, felt Washington’s Privacy Laws took precedence and agreed such video should not be released.  But the majority disagreed.   Public disclosure is the major reason most Washington police agencies do not widely employ body-worn video.  Baltimore has created a specific police task force to address privacy issues and others associated with body-cams.   Seattle has a digital privacy initiative to address not just police and body-cam issues, but privacy issues in general.
  7. Seattle Police Hackathon

    Seattle Police Hackathon

    Video requires redaction before release.  A sergeant with the Albuquerque Police Department observed that “officers a lot of times are seeing people on the worst day of their lives, and we’re capturing that on video that’s now a public record.” (DOJ Study, page 27.)  Common sense as well as privacy dictates every video should be reviewed and redacted.  This includes either getting permission of most of the citizens in the video to release it, or blurring faces and removing audio before release.  Indeed, changes to Washington State’s public records act or privacy laws may be required to deal with these redaction and public disclosure issues.  Redaction technology to reliably blur individual faces or otherwise redact video does not exist.  Redaction must be done manually, a time consuming and expensive process.   (Note:  the Seattle Police Department is conducting a hackathon on December 19, 2014, hoping to enlist the help of tech-savvy citizens to address the problem of redaction.)

  8. Unredaction may be an issue.  Technology allows at least partial redaction of video;   but similar technologies may be available to unredact video, re-instating the privacy concerns.
  9. Police departments need to develop a whole variety of policies to address the issues listed above and others.   Many of these issues are quite thorny.
    • Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson just released an opinion about whether an officer needs to ask permission and a citizen needs to give consent before their interaction is video-recorded. According to that opinion, police do not have to ask permission, even to record video inside a private residence.  Citizens may act differently – and behave better – if they know a recording is in progress.   Or elected officials may decide they want officers to ask permission before making recordings inside a private home.
    • As another example, basic facial recognition technology now exists. Should all police-recorded video be sent through facial recognition software to identify the individuals who have been recorded?
    • Should officers be allowed to turn the video on and off? If so, under what circumstances?
    • Such questions require serious deliberation.
  10. Deployment of body-worn video often requires re-negotiation of the police union contract, and negotiation of the policies with community organizations such as the ACLU.
  11. Officers must be trained not only in the operation of the body-cam video, but also in all the policies for managing video and using it as evidence.   All this training means officers will, again, spend less time on the street.

Body-worn video cameras for public safety are an admirable technology.   Body-cams for police officers are needed in America today.    And there is almost universal agreement they should be deployed.

But, as with many technologies, the cultural, political, policy and technical impediments are significant.    Communities need to understand all the ramifications, and elected officials need to be ready to pay the costs in resources, dollars and time to enable an effective deployment.

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Filed under Law Enforcement, Seattle Police, video

FirstNet comes to the “Other” Washington

Washington's Initial Consultation with FirstNet

Washington’s Initial Consultation with FirstNet

The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) came to the “other Washington” on October 16, 2014, and officially launched the design process for FirstNet in Washington.   We taught FirstNet a few lessons about the public safety needs in Washington State.   And we learned a bit about how FirstNet will design a network to serve responders in Washington.

“Consultation”

“Consultation” has a special meaning in FirstNet-speak.

We conducted the consultation meeting from 9:00 AM to 4:30 PM at the Thurston County Fairgrounds outside of the State Capital, Olympia. About 180 responders and other stakeholders from around the state attended .

The purpose of this “initial” consultation was to launch a design process for FirstNet in Washington. We think this will take about 18 months, but that’s definitely a guesstimate based on a variety of factors, including how rapidly FirstNet can issue its RFP for vendor partners, get responses, and evaluate them.

During this consultation period FirstNet will provide technical expertise and other input to build a State Plan and design for the network in Washington. Responders in Washington will provide information about their needs for coverage, usage, devices, applications and other capabilities in order to improve public safety for the people of Washington. Responders will specify what sort of support they need in this world of rapidly mutating technology including smart phones, tablet computers, apps, wearable computers, tiny video recorders, the “Internet of things” and much more. And by “responder” we’re talking about anyone who has a role in responding to a public safety emergency and disaster: firefighters, cops, paramedics, electric and water utility workers, transportation workers, transit drivers, the Red Cross and Salvation Army and others. Even school teachers, alas, are too often first responders as we found out again at Pilchuck High School in Marysville on October 24th.

The end of this consultation process is a State Plan (capital letters) for FirstNet in Washington presented to Governor Jay Inslee, who will, after consulting with our state’s responders, either opt-in or opt-out of the plan. The State Plan, like all State Plans developed for the 56 states and territories, should include elements such as what parts of the state will be covered permanently, who will be authorized to use FirstNet in Washington, how much users will need to pay and many more elements about how the network will operate in our state.

How the Day Proceeded

init-consult-video-sm

Watching the “FirstNet in Washington” Video

We started the day by showing the short version of our “FirstNet in Washington” video (see it here), which features Washington State Interoperability Executive Committee (SIEC) members discussing what FirstNet might mean for the State’s responders. This is a fairly dramatic video, with statements from Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste, Pacific County Emergency Management Director Stephanie Fritts (Pacific County is subject to both earthquakes and tsunamis), Quinault Tribe Technology Leader Randell Harris, West Pierce Fire Chief Jim Sharp, Whitcom 911 Director Patti Kelly, and Edmonds Police Chief Al Compaan.

init-consult-mullins-sm

Sandy Mullins, Public Safety Advisor to Governor JAy Inslee

We had welcomes from Sandy Mullins (pictured at left), who is Governor Jay Inslee’s advisor for Public Safety, and Michael Cockrill, the State’s Chief Information Officer (CIO). The FirstNet effort in Washington State is managed inside the Office of the CIO.

FirstNet General Manager T. J. Kennedy

FirstNet General Manager T. J. Kennedy

After the video, FirstNet General Manager T. J. Kennedy took the floor to provide a welcome from FirstNet. He described the significant efforts FirstNet is undertaking to prepare for, design and build this nationwide network, a daunting effort unparalleled in United States history. Kennedy mentioned the Request for Information (RFI) and Public Notice (PN) from which FirstNet hopes to gain input to drive its future plan.   The RFI seeks information to guide FirstNet’s 2015 RFP for the network.  The public notice seeks ideas about who should be able to use the network, among other topics.

Rich Reed, FirstNet’s Director of State Plans talked about some of the recent history of FirstNet, such as the regional meetings conducted in mid-2013. He described what went on at those meetings as “shockingly unimplementable” and that’s definitely true . The FirstNet Board members who led those meetings were far too optimistic on schedule and effort.

Rich Reed characterizes the information presently available as “what we know”, “what we don’t know” and “what we think”, and answers questions within that framework. For example, the law which created FirstNet contains 24 Congressional mandates. As another example, FirstNet’s shelf life is from 2012 to September 30, 2022, when the authority and funds end unless renewed by Congress.

Some other highlights of Reed’s talk:

  • FirstNet is keenly aware it must “earn the business” of each public safety agency by offering equal or superior products, services and support.
  • Consultation with States does not end when FirstNet delivers the State Plan to Governor Inslee (or any other Governor). Consultation will continue as FirstNet implements in the state, builds its network, and then expands it based upon the needs of the state’s responders.
  • Will there be one vendor partner or many partners to build out the network? This is unknown.
  • Will devices be able to talk to other devices via Bluetooth, boomer sites, small cells and so forth? All such technologies are on the table.
  • Reed, Buchanan and Kennedy also talked about the updated, streamlined, approach to State consultation which is shown in the image below:
FirstNet's Approach to State Consultation

FirstNet’s Approach to State Consultation

Needs for FirstNet in Washington

Four senior officials from local government presented practical examples of challenges and disasters they have faced in 2014, some of the communication problems they had, and how a robust wireless data network may be able to improve response and recovery in the future. The slide deck used in these presentations is on the Washington OneNet site here.

Okanogan County Wildfires and Floods

Mike Worden, Okanogan County

Mike Worden, Okanogan County

Okanogan County, and other counties in Washington experienced one of the worst wildfire seasons on record. Okanogan County suffered from the largest wildfire in recorded state history, measured in geography, the Carleton Complex fire. This fire raged in July and August 2014 and burned 400 square miles, destroying 237 homes and 55 cabins. The fire was ultimately extinguished partially as a result heavy rains, but those rains caused flooding and torrential stream flows, causing further damage. One death is attributed to the fire.

Okanogan County Senior Deputy Mike Worden (photo at right) discussed the interoperable communications challenges of the event. These included:

  • Over fifty to sixty miles fiber optic cable, mounted on wooden poles, was lost, cutting 911 service to many residents and connections to some commercial cell sites. At least one undergrounded fiber was cut when the fiber which ran under a bridge melted.
  • While the Sheriff’s Department has mobile data computers in deputy vehicles, most city police departments and local fire departments do not have such access to wireless data communications. No public safety land-mobile radio (LMR) sites were lost, although at least one site operated on generator during an extended power outage due to loss of electrical lines and service. One public safety site in Oroville lost coverage due to loss of phone lines which serve as backhaul to that site.
  • The Sheriff’s department used automatic vehicle location (AVL), mobile digital maps, instant messaging and electronic mail to coordinate evacuation of residences.
  • The Sheriff’s department tracked routes and locations which had now mobile data coverage and has maps to support improvement of that coverage.

After Worden’s presentation, he and the audience discussion extracted several lessons learned from this event:

  • All local and state agencies need to invest in mobile data devices (computers, smart phones, tablets) for their field officers to better share situational awareness and a common operating picture. Perhaps this use needs to be subsidized if local agencies cannot afford it.
  • Affordability of mobile data devices and ubiquitous use of them is key to responding both to daily incidents and major disasters like this.
  • Interoperability with state and federal agencies is also important to wildfire response. Such agencies include Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT), Washington State Patrol (WSP), Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR – which is primarily responsible for wildland firefighting), federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and federal National Forest Service (NFS) part of the Department of Agriculture.
  • Mobile data use by responders is, more and more, becoming a “necessity” rather than a “nice-to-have”.

Snohomish County State Route 530 Landslide

State Route 530 Landslide

State Route 530 Landslide

Scott Honaker, the Radio Officer at the Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management (DEM), discussed the challenges and lessons learned from that event.

The State Route 530 landslide occurred on Saturday, March 22, 2014. It destroyed 36 homes directly and 9 more by flooding. Forty-three people died in the slide. Everyone who could be rescued was rescued in the first 12 hours, but the recovery operations continued for six weeks with up to 1,000 responders deployed in the 1500 foot long, 4400 foot wide landslide area.

Some of the interoperable communications challenges detailed by Honaker included:

  • Lack of situational awareness was a challenge during the first 48 hours. Few responders realized the size or extent of the slide, and accurate data on the number of people missing took a week to assemble. Ironically some situational awareness was available from Navy, Snohomish, King County and private air ambulance helicopter pilots during the recovery phase, but there were few paths to accurately convey this data to incident commanders on the ground.
  • The slide severed a fiber optic cable connecting the town of Darrington to the outside world for communications. This cut Darrington off in terms of 911 calls, Internet and land-line telephone service. One commercial cellular provider, Verizon, retained connections. 911 Center staff quickly worked with Frontier communications to reroute 911 calls to a police substation in Darrington. Other commercial cellular providers lost connectivity due to the loss of the fiber line.
  • Volunteers were extensively used in the recovery operation. Many of them had friends and relatives whose bodies were buried under the debris; furthermore, these volunteers had the proper equipment (logging equipment, bulldozers) to move the debris.
  • Commercial cellular and land-line carriers – especially Verizon and Frontier, but also AT&T, provided extraordinary support during the event. For example Verizon assigned technicians to the event 24×7 and Frontier restored the fiber line to connect Darrington within three days.
  • Video downlinks from Snohomish and King County helicopters and Washington State Patrol aircraft were available, but only one or two receivers were available on the ground for receiving the video, and there was no way to distribute it via data communications to incident commanders and responder devices.
  • A detailed report on the land-mobile radio challenges and lessons learned is here.

Some of the lessons learned for FirstNet discussed by the audience include:

  • FirstNet must have operational capability to immediately respond on site with technical staff to support communications after a disaster.
  • It is extraordinarily important for all responders and responder agencies to have certain common applications on their mobile data devices to share situation awareness and communications during the response, but also the recovery phase after disasters.
  • Aircraft – helicopters, airplanes and drones – are very important to situational awareness, but communicating information obtained from such sources is difficult. This information includes video, LIDAR and other scanning technologies as well as voice and GPS data.
  • In a complex event, situational awareness must be distributed across a wide variety of teams involved in the response – local and state police, local firefighters, DNR, WSDOT, FEMA, city, county and state Emergency Operations Centers (EOCs), Urban Search-and-Rescue, search-and-rescue (SAR) volunteers, other volunteers (like loggers), National Guard, Coast Guard, and the Navy in this case. Common applications and/or common use of a network like FirstNet could vastly improve situational awareness during the critical first hours of response.

Seattle Seahawks Victory Parade

Seattle Police escort the Seahawks

Seattle Police escort the Seahawks

Captain Dick Reed attended the morning session of the initial consultation, but was called away before he could talk about communications challenges during the Seahawk victory parade. Some of those challenges have been detailed in the public media, such as this Seattle Times article.

The parade on February 5, 2014, drew an estimated 700,000 people to downtown Seattle. Cellular network providers tried to provide additional network capability via cell-on-wheels (COW) and similar apparatus. Nevertheless many cell phone calls and much wireless data communication was unusable for over three hours. Fortunately there were few major incidents. Many responders from multiple agencies came to mutual aid of the City of Seattle to support the event. LMR networks (King County 800 MHz radio) performed flawlessly, and in several cases citizens came to police officers or firefighters along the route to request aid, and those responders were able to use their 800 MHz trunked radio to summon aid. Nevertheless the mobile data computers, smart phones and tablet computers of all responders were affected just like citizens and parade observers.

The Seahawks Victory Parade experience supports the need for a dedicated network for use by responders.

Engaging Washington Responders in the FirstNet State Plan

Thurston County Sheriff John Snaza, Sandy Mullins, Bill Schrier, State Emergency Management Director Robert Ezelle

Thurston County Sheriff John Snaza, Sandy Mullins, Bill Schrier, State Emergency Management Director Robert Ezelle

Finally, as the FirstNet State Point of Contact (SPOC), I discussed how Washington OneNet and Washington’s responders will engage with FirstNet during the consultation process to develop the state plan (slides of the presentation are here).

Washington has engaged the Washington State University (WSU) Division of Governmental Studies & Services and the Pacific Northwest Economic Region (PNWER) as subcontractors to continue outreach, education and data collections in support of Washington OneNet. WSU will be contacting first responder agencies and elected officials throughout the state to make them aware of the FirstNet design effort and engage them in developing the State Plan. Similarly PNWER will engage public works, utilities and similar responders in the effort. This work will kick off in earnest in January, 2015.

Washington will form three committees – a stakeholder committee, technical committee and operational committee. The Operational Committee will be led by Jim Pryor, retired assistant police chief in Seattle, and will consist of invited individuals who have performed as a public safety incident commander.

The Operational Committee will explore and make recommendations to the SIEC regarding operational aspects of FirstNet’s dedicated Public Safety Wireless Broadband Network in Washington State. The Committee will consider such issues as network management/prioritization during critical incidents and normal use; availability and use of multi-disciplinary applications on the network; establishing operational guidelines when interfacing with local, state, federal, and military entities; and, other topics that might be referred to the Committee to take advantage of the experience, background, and training of its members.

The Stakeholder Committee will be composed of elected officials and senior officials of responder agencies to consider questions such as coverage, where incidents occur, who is a “responder” and should be authorized to use the network, costs and affordability.

The Technical Committee will support FirstNet’s work in technical design – including deployable sites (e.g. sites on fire apparatus, drones, and similar platforms), in-building coverage, distributed antennas, throughput speeds, and micro-cell-sites, implementing priority and similar issues.

The goal of these Washington State efforts is not to “sell” FirstNet, but rather to get a design for Washington State which meets the needs of our responders and citizens.

What FirstNet Needs from Washington

FirstNet's Brian Hobson talks about coverae

FirstNet’s Brian Hobson talks about coverage

In the afternoon of the initial consultation, Brian Hobson (photo at right, with a coverage map) and Rich Reed of FirstNet described the sorts of information FirstNet needs to design a network and prepare a State Plan for Washington. They discussed:

  • The need to find incident management data such as computer-aided-dispatch (CAD), records management system (RMS) and 9-1-1 call data to map the location of incidents in the state, which in turn drives coverage mapping.
  • Coverage maps of the existing state and local LMR networks are a good starting point for coverage mapping.
  • FirstNet will do a phased build-out in Washington. What are the appropriate phases? Washington’s elected officials and responders need to define that. For example, Washington might want to do a reverse build-out with the areas with high need but poor coverage being the first to be built out.
  • Washington might consider how to manage feedback loops and processes for managing further expansion of the network.

Next Steps for Washington State

  • Continue outreach & discussion with responder agencies and Tribes.
  • Begin collection of data elements. These include information such as names of potential user agencies, a point of contact in each agency, the potential number of FirstNet users in each agency, applications which are presently in use, and so forth.
  • Consider coverage, capacity, users and other input Washington has for the FirstNet State Plan.
  • Work with FirstNet staff on the State Plan.

Next Steps for FirstNet

  • Hire staff members in Federal Region X (Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Idaho) to support work on the state plan.
  • Develop template of specific user data and information, which states should collect to support the development of the State Plan.
  • Assimilate input from the RFI and publish a draft RFP, probably in first quarter of calendar year 2015, to solicit vendors and partners to build the network.

Challenges for a FirstNet State Plan in Washington

East and West. While we had a good attendance from around the state, it was hard to get representatives from Eastern Washington. Washington, like most states, has a “divide”, and in our case it is “east of the Cascade Mountains” and “west of the mountains”. When a meeting is held on one side, attendance from the other falls off. We also are using our state-and-local implementation planning grant (SLIGP) funds to pay for travel, lodging and per diem of public officials who attend the meeting, but they still need to be away from their day jobs, a real challenge for smaller cities and rural counties who do not have a lot of staff.

Shoalwater Bay Police Chief Robin Souviner

Shoalwater Bay Police Chief Robin Souviner

Indian Country. We had 7 representatives from Indian tribes, including Mike Lyall, Vice-Chair of the Cowlitz tribe and Robin Souvenir, Police Chief for the Shoalwater Bay Tribe (photo at right). The Cowlitz have a huge reservation in the central part of the state and the Shoalwater Bay Tribe is in Pacific County, vulnerable to tsunami and also in the shadow of a cliff, with poor commercial cell coverage. Nevertheless we have 29 federal recognized tribes in the state – and some additional tribes beyond those – so we have more work to do to engage our tribes who are federal governments. Besides the Cowlitz, other tribes in the state cover a large geography and are economically and culturally important to our state. We have much more work to do to engage them all.

Urban, suburban and rural first responders. We had good participation from rural and suburban agencies, including police, fire and emergency medical, plus 911 centers (PSAPs) and emergency managers. We didn’t get a lot of responders from larger cities such as Spokane, Seattle and Tacoma, although we had good participations from their counties – Spokane, King and Pierce.

Lessons Learned

Washington OneNet offers a number of lessons and suggestions for other states who are going to conduct an initial consultation.

Prepare user stories/case studies. The user stories and case studies are a phenomenal chance to engage Firstnet about the unique challenges of the state and its responders. But it is also helpful for the state’s own responders to hear about the issues faced by other responding agencies in the state. Washington, unfortunately, has had too many disasters, just in 2014, and therefore faces many mobilizations and challenges. Other potential disasters loom, including a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, lahars, volcanic eruption and terrorism due to a long international border and a long coastline.

T. J. Kennedy talks with retired Seattle Assistant Police Chief Jim Pryor

T. J. Kennedy talks with retired Seattle Assistant Police Chief Jim Pryor

Hallway conversations are half the event. “Virtual meetings” like WebEx and Go-to-Meeting will never replace meeting people at a live event. T. J. Kennedy and other FirstNet staff really “worked the room” meeting with Washington State responders, as did Washington OneNet staff. Kennedy’s background as a first responder makes him a powerful ambassador for FirstNet and a great person to engage police and fire chiefs, as well as elected officials. These individual and personal touches are the foundation for future engagement to build the State Plan. (Photo at right: T. J. Kennedy talks with retired Seattle Police Assistant Chief Jim Pryor).

Summary

If the design, planning, construction and implementation of the First Responder Network in the State of Washington is a 26 mile, 385 yard, marathon, the initial consultation we conducted on October 16th is the first 100 yards.   We’re off to a running start, but there’s a long, sometimes difficult, sometimes enjoyable, 26 mile, 285 yards to go.   The general road map to the final network is in place, but the hills, valleys and curves are yet to be plotted and overcome.  Over the next several years responders from throughout Washington will work with FirstNet to create a State Plan and then will see it to implementation.   At that point each city, county, police and fire department, electric utility, public works and other responder agency will need to decide if the new FirstNet will meet their specific needs. Getting to a great design will be a major portion of the effort.

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Oregon’s FirstNet Consultation – Impressions

Oregon-consult-med-10-08-14

Oregon’s Consultation

In February, 2012 the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) was created and funded with $7 billion by Congress to build a nationwide wireless network for responders to daily incidents and larger disasters.  I sometimes call it a cellular network to connect the smart phones and tablets of cops and firefighters, but, really, anyone who responds to disasters will probably be able to use it.

FirstNet is required to consult with state governments about its plans, and then develop a design and plan for each state.   This state plan will include what parts of the state will be covered, who can use the network in the state, and what the costs will be.

FirstNet is starting to launch the consultation and design process, state by state.  I was fortunate to be present on October 8th when FirstNet staff conducted their initial consultation with officials in the state of Oregon at the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training (DPSST) in Salem.   Steve Noel, Oregon Statewide Interoperability Coordinator (SWIC) hosted the meeting.  This is the third initial consultation of 56 states and territories where FirstNet will be constructed.  The State of Washington is next up for an initial consultation, which occurs on October 16th.

Here are a few of my impressions from Oregon’s consultation.

I was most intrigued to hear real-world examples of communications needs from Oregon’s responders.

Chief Mike Duyck from the Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue, vice-chair of the Oregon State Interoperability Executive Council, eloquently spoke about the communications needs and possibilities of FirstNet.     He spoke about “geo-fencing” physical addresses, so when responders were called to a specific address, they would know if people with arrest warrants or histories of violence lived or frequented nearby locations.   He talked about crowdsourcing off-duty responders who are physically close to major incidents, video conferencing physicians from the scene of a medical emergency, and interconnecting traditional public safety land-mobile radios with smart phones and other cellular devices.  All-in-all, his talk was an eye-opening vision of the future of public safety communications from an active, engaged fire chief.

Cheryl Bledsoe of Clackamas 911 discusses the Mall Shooter

Cheryl Bledsoe of Clackamas 911 discusses the Mall Shooter

Cheryl Bledsoe from the Clackamas County 9-1-1 office talked about the combined use of land-mobile radio, cell phones and social media like twitter responding to the 2012 Clackamas Mall shooter.

Bledsoe, who is a prolific tweeter herself, said the first tweets from terrified citizens at the mall occurred more than two minutes before the first 911 call (see also Huffington Post article about that here).   She also related how a senior official of the Clackamas Sheriff’s department got the first word of the shooting from his daughter via a cell phone call.  She was watching social media and noticed news of the shooting, then called her dad.  My lesson from this story:  public safety needs to continue to embrace and enhance its use of smart phone apps and social media, and even the two-way use of platforms like twitter (Seattle Police are one of the best at two-way tweeting.)

Jackson County Vehicle

Jackson County Vehicle

Some of Oregon’s first responders are actively adopting commercial high-speed mobile data networks for innovative use today.   Sheriff Mike Winters, Sergeant Rick Kennedy and Jenny Hall from the Jackson County Sheriff’s department (tweeting here) brought their communications vehicle and demonstrated their use of wireless video.   They showed live video from their communications center 150 miles away, and talked about the use of live video from helicopter feeds as well as fixed locations.  They are hungry for more bandwidth and eagerly await the implementation of FirstNet to help with that.  All Jackson County deputies use smart phones which include both GPS location (so they know where other deputies are located) and applications like an interconnection to their Land-Mobile Radio network.   They also can access video from schools in the county (when authorized by the school).

David Buchanan, Rich Reed and Brian Hobson led the FirstNet team meeting with Oregon.   David has blogged about his observations here.    I was impressed by the team’s attentiveness to the concerns of Oregon’s responders, and by their honesty.   Rich Reed, FirstNet’s director of state plans, says “there are some things we know, many things we don’t know, and some things we believe” about how FirstNet will roll out nationwide.   By coming to Oregon and other states they are hoping to expand the “things they know”.

Oregon-firstnet-consult

Rich Reed addresses Oregon’s Responders

A few other observations, in no particular order:

  • FirstNet staff emphasized again and again that the network needs to be self-sustaining – FirstNet has to find sources of income to match its operational costs and investment needs. At the same time it must be affordable to responder agencies, many of whom do not use commercial networks today, or only use them in a limited fashion.
  • Oregon responders urged FirstNet to make the per-device cost equal to or less than the costs they presently pay to commercial carriers.
  • Police Chief Rock Rakosi, chair of the Oregon SIEC, eloquently spoke about the need to provide coverage for rural agencies, even though there will not necessarily be significant income for FirstNet from a rural build-out.
  • Some of those present in the room cited the need for subsidies for responding agencies with very limited budgets and potentially for volunteer firefighters or search-and-rescue volunteers.
  • Rich Reed discussed the challenge of getting FirstNet’s band 14 chips into commercial devices. He noted the new iPhone 6 has 20 different LTE spectrum bands/chips but not Band 14.
  • Karl Larson of the City of Portland raised the need for procurement contracts and vehicles in each state, so that cities, counties, state agencies and other responder entities could legally procure FirstNet services and devices.
  • Brian Hobson said FirstNet has acquired Mentum Planet modeling software to help it design coverage for states.
  • Each of the 56 states and territories who will be FirstNet partners has a “State Point of Contact” or SPOC.  Steve Noel invited SPOCs from each state bordering Oregon to attend this event, and we all did:   Rob Feeley of Idaho, George Molnar of Nevada, Karen Wong of California and my team from Washington.
  • Another critical success factor is adoption by public safety agencies and other responders.
  • According to FirstNet’s market research, sustainability is achievable as FirstNet doesn’t have to make a profit, support high overhead costs, pay spectrum licensing fees, turn a profit to (or satisfy) shareholders.   (Schrier’s note:   although FirstNet does have to satisfy its public safety user base, who are a tough crowd).

I’m looking forward to FirstNet’s coming to Washington on October 16th to have a similar dialog with our public safety leaders and other responders.  More details about that event on Washington OneNet’s website here.

(This post was slightly updated on October 15, 2014, to add the comment from Chief Rakosi and correct a minor spelling error.)

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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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