Tag Archives: Sue Swenson

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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Filed under broadband, FirstNet

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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Filed under broadband, FirstNet, government operations

Firstnet Finds a Fireball

Sue Swenson

Sue Swenson

On June 3rd, Sue Swenson assumed the role of Chair of the FirstNet Board of Directors.  She spoke to a group of about 500 people from public safety agencies, industry and the federal government at a conference near Boulder, Colorado, sponsored by Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR), an agency of the federal government’s Department of Commerce.  Her prepared remarks are here.

In Sue Swenson, FirstNet has found a fireball of a leader.

Her remarks are refreshing.   She admitted past Firstnet mistakes which have set back the effort.   She’s willing to admit her own, past, misgivings.  But she convincingly conveyed why she accepted the Chair’s role:  this work is something which will make a difference in the lives of every American.   And that same motivation drives the rest of us.

Sue has a sense of urgency, but not emergency.   I hate it when a tech employee comes to me and says “we have an emergency”.  As a former cop my response is always “oh yeah, whose life is in danger?”   Swenson feels the same way – unless someone has died, problems can be fixed.   She’s obviously a “can do” leader.

Sue is draconian on customer service.  When FirstNet makes a commitment they must keep that commitment.   If you can’t do it, don’t make the commitment.  “Don’t do that with me [drop commitments], or you will suffer.”

Sue’s remarks indicate a new era of transparency and openness is starting at FirstNet.  Here are some of the other indicators:

  • The FirstNet Board meeting yesterday was conducted in a room open to the public at a hotel.   No more full Board meetings behind closed doors, with only a handful of people in the room, televised with grainy video and hit-and-miss audio.   This is the way city councils and state legislatures and other public bodies meet – it is great to see the Board meeting that same standard.
  • FirstNet staff, to a person, are open and engaging – in person, on the phone, via email.  They ask questions, they ask for opinions, they answer questions honestly, understanding they only have a few of the answers.  Most of FirstNet’s future is unknown – it is yet to be written.  They, like Sue, are committed.
  • FirstNet has promised a public comment and input process on major parts of its work, like a comprehensive network request for proposals (RFP) for equipment and services.
  • The FirstNet website, while still rudimentary, contains hints of the new transparency.  Features such as a blog give timely news.  For example, FirstNet now has about 90 employees and contractors and we’re seeing announcements of some of those hires on the blog and website.  In fact, FirstNet says they will accept guest blog posts from outside – and I’ll be taking them up on that offer!
  • FirstNet encourages potential vendors to engage and meet with staff.   This is extraordinarily important as it keeps industry engaged, keeps FirstNet informed as the technology changes, and gives even small vendors – like local independent telephone companies and tech startups – a chance to be heard.  I’ve heard that, in the past, FirstNet staff listened politely to presentations but were forbidden to ask questions or engage.  So this is a welcome change.
  • FirstNet is highlighting best practices from states – work like a great poster developed by Oregon or a sharepoint site developed by Maryland.   This indicates a true intention to collaborate and work with states.

All is not sweetness and light, of course.   It is still frustrating to hear a lot of talk about the “program roadmap” but yet only have a two-page executive summary which describes it.   T. J. Kennedy, at the Board meeting, described some of the milestones – financial, personnel – which his team has met.   But most of the roadmap is a really a fog to those of us on the outside.

There is also the issue of sustainability. Swenson indicated “the strategy for FirstNet must be a sustainable plan, and that includes recapitalization of the network”.   This issue – a business plan to finance the construction and operation of the network – is of enormous interest to elected officials such as fire district commissioners and state legislators.   But no viable public business plan exists.  How will a nationwide network with only a few million users be able to stay current in technology and coverage and user demands as LTE wireless technology rapidly develops?  We hope and trust a business plan is under development.   Many of us in states could help with this if we see draft versions and perhaps run it through the proposed public comment process

Telecommunicators - Almost Invisible Responders

Telecommunicators – Almost Invisible Responders

I admire retiring chair Sam Ginn, and thank him for taking on the responsibility – something he didn’t have to do – to launch this whole enterprise and get the FirstNet ball rolling and keep it rolling up some pretty steep hills.   And I especially thank him for a phone call he made in mid-2012 to recruit Sue Swenson to the Board.

I look forward to the Swenson Era at FirstNet.   As she eloquently stated:  “[In the past] We didn’t make it clear whose network it is – it is public safety’s network and we have the privilege of working on it.”

I feel the same way – this network is owned by cops and firefighters and electrical lineworkers and building inspectors and EMT’s and telecommunicators who answer 911 calls every day.   Like Sue, I’m just privileged to work on it.

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Filed under 911, emergency operations, FirstNet, Law Enforcement, radio