Among the hottest topics at the NASCIO national conference in Philadelphia last fall was the First Responder Network Authority — the independent federal entity better known as FirstNet.

The new public safety broadband network’s goal is to get emergency responders on a common communications platform, eliminating situations in which police or fire agencies from different jurisdictions can’t talk to one another during emergencies. State CIOs are hungry for more information because there are still many unanswered questions about business plans, infrastructure and deployment of state assets, and the CIOs must play a central role in each state’s planning and implementation. Many of them are the point person for a federal grant program that is paying states to tally potential users and inventory radio towers and other gear that could be used by the network.

“We think CIOs need to be involved in reaching out to public safety organizations in their state at all levels,” said TJ Kennedy, deputy general manager of FirstNet. “Their experience with broadband at the state level will be beneficial. It will be a valuable asset to the statewide discussions.”

If anyone illustrates the capabilities a CIO can bring to this effort, it is Sonny Bhagowalia, CIO of Hawaii. He has a background in electrical engineering and telecommunications, having worked at Boeing and NASA. He also dealt with aspects of public safety communications while working for the FBI, and as CIO of the Department of the Interior and the Indian Affairs Bureau. “I have worked on telecom agreements about state and federal interoperability,” he said, “so I have some experience with innovation in this realm.” [Editor’s Note: At press time, Sonny Bhagowalia had just been named Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s chief adviser for technology and cybersecurity.]

Bhagowalia, co-chair of the Hawaii Wireless Interoperability Network Executive Committee, is the state’s point person on the federal planning grant. In explaining his role in FirstNet planning, he said, “the state CIO is more than head of IT. We are brokers between providers and consumers of telecom services. Our expertise is needed to make these projects work. I am already involved in Hawaii broadband and wireless initiatives, and in my view there is some urgency to get going on FirstNet.”

In fact, in 2011 Hawaii undertook a pilot project in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture that involved demonstrations of multiple technology uses, including mobile-to-mobile video; mobile video collaboration with an emergency operations center; interagency collaboration; live high-definition video; and the integration of LTE clients with records management.

In 2013, Bhagowalia hired Victoria Garcia as statewide interoperability coordinator for Hawaii. Garcia previously served as general counsel for the New Mexico Department of Information Technology, where she led the effort to obtain an FCC 700 MHz waiver, and helped secure the state’s $55 million Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

Another reason for Bhagowalia’s enthusiasm is the state’s unique geography. “We are a crossroads of the Pacific; we have a lot of DoD [Department of Defense] and national security issues here. We are isolated and have to be able to sustain ourselves, and we have issues of earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes. So we are very supportive of FirstNet and eager to get going on it.”

But not every state has named its CIO the point person for FirstNet planning.

Chuck Robinson, director of shared services for Charlotte, N.C., has been engaged in public safety broadband efforts for several years and is part of the statewide planning group for FirstNet in North Carolina, where the secretary of public safety, Kieran Shanahan, was named to lead the federal grant planning. (Shanahan resigned in July 2013 and was replaced by Frank Perry.) But that doesn’t diminish the significance of the state CIO’s office in the planning, Robinson said.

“The most important thing is who is best able to bring to bear the resources of the state to support the deployment,” explained Robinson, who had a unique view of FirstNet’s early development efforts through his role as chairman of the FCC’s Technical Advisory Board for First Responder Interoperability. “Some states don’t have a cabinet-level appointment in public safety. Our secretary of public safety has an open door to the governor and broad responsibilities.” Also, he said, former CIO of North Carolina, George Bakolia, joined the Department of Public Safety in 2013 to lead the state’s participation in FirstNet. “George has a deep understanding of the state CIO’s office and a good understanding of state assets, so he can capitalize on that knowledge of communications infrastructure,” said Robinson.

Charlotte also was a BTOP recipient, but as it was planning its network, local commercial carriers dropped their prices, which threw off the city’s business model expectations. “Our problems were not with FirstNet,” Robinson said. “It was a business circumstance that they were unable to help us with because they didn’t have the tools. But what happened with us is an important lesson for FirstNet.”

Governance Structure

Another issue that state CIOs must grapple with is developing a governance structure to make inclusive decisions about FirstNet. “Like elsewhere, we have had governance structures in North Carolina, but we have several structures that are competing — one around public safety, one around the technology — and they sometimes have competing interests,” Robinson said. “One challenge will be to get the right stakeholders at the table, and blend technology, public safety and tribal leaders as well as utilities. For instance, in North Carolina, Duke Energy is a key partner. “And there is a huge fiber ring around the state. That is a huge asset, so the user organization for that has to be at the table.”

Mark Raymond, CIO of Connecticut, said governance must be a focus in his state as well. “Connecticut is in something of a unique position among the states in view of FirstNet because we have just completed a three-year program to build out a fiber-optic network, part of which is to serve public safety. So we have been thinking about high-speed access to data to public safety constituents for a long time. Even though we have a governance structure set up for that wired system, there is still more work to do for a wireless system that will be more complex. For instance, we have to include the tribal nations and more local police jurisdictions.”

In a presentation about FirstNet last April, Bill Vallee, Connecticut’s state broadband coordinator, stressed the importance of Raymond’s position. “State CIOs need to be included in this process because of their unique enterprise view and responsibilities in dealing with the state digital fabric on a daily basis. If CIOs are included and consulted during the grant process, NTIA will be able to take advantage of existing network infrastructure and the governance processes by which they’re managed,” he wrote. “In this regard, it is critical that CIOs are part of this process because of their expertise with statewide network services, IP-based networks and contract management to the table around which the public safety broadband interoperable network will be planned and implemented.”

The planning grants are helping state CIOs begin an educational process. Brenda Decker, CIO of Nebraska, is leading her state’s FirstNet efforts. “CIOs need to be at the table,” she said. “Broadband LTE [long-term evolution] networks are somewhat new territory for public safety organizations, but they are more in our wheelhouse as we have experience with statewide broadband networks.”

In December, Nebraska brought together 400 people from various aspects of public safety to explain what FirstNet is and to ask: What would you use it for? “We will recruit a small subset of that group to form an ongoing governance group to help us figure out what is needed and to make recommendations to the governor,” Decker said. “And that group will need to stay in existence to make decisions about funding and other issues going forward.”

Opting Out?

Although the FirstNet network and business model have yet to take shape, states are allowed to opt out of participation, but then the state must release an RFP within 180 days to build its own FirstNet-compliant network. States will have only 90 days to decide once the FirstNet plan is announced, and some states are still determining whether the governor has the statutory authority to make that decision alone. Decker said it is not clear yet whether her governor has the statutory authority to make a decision without the legislature. “That is an issue that is being explored,” she said, “but either way, it is a mistake to do this without involving the legislature and keeping them informed.”

Decker said she absolutely sees the potential benefits of FirstNet. “We still have areas of the state where we have gaps in coverage in LMR [land mobile radio],” she said. “So people at an emergency or event could not get the timely information they need to do their jobs. It would be invaluable to get that coverage,” she added. “But we don’t know what the FirstNet plan is going to look like yet. We could opt in, but what if nobody buys the services? Then we have created financial obligations for ourselves. Our job is to protect the state and meet its public safety needs, wants and uses. If this doesn’t meet those needs, we will have a problem.”

Stu Davis, CIO of Ohio, said he has a vested interest in being involved in FirstNet planning. “For instance, I want to make sure that identity and access management solutions use existing standards,” he said.

Davis, who chairs the state’s Multi-Agency Radio Communications System Steering Committee, has heard some concerns from stakeholders in the state. The legislature is worried about being asked to fund a big component of it, and localities are worried about what costs will be passed on to them, he said. Testifying before a subcommittee of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee in November, Davis said, “FirstNet seems to be asking the states to build the business case for them. This is critical to know and understand for the sustainability of the effort. Building the cost recovery and usage rates will be instrumental in the adoption of this effort. The answer I get is build and ongoing costs will be supported through partnerships [with the states] and subscriptions from early adopter/builders and the goal is to reinvest those user fees into construction. I don’t believe this is a sustainable model. Someone has to pay for operations while adoption ramps up and takes place.”

Yet Davis doesn’t see opting out of FirstNet as much of an option. “If you were going to opt out, you would have to have a plan figured out on how to meet the requirements and then you might get FirstNet money on the back end,” he said. “I am not sure how viable a plan that is.”

Davis would like the partnership with FirstNet to include plans specific to each state that take advantage of assets and lessons learned. “We have some shared service models in Ohio that FirstNet should know about,” he said.

Bhagowalia said it would be disappointing if states opt out and build their own networks. “I don’t see a fragmented approach working with each state doing its own thing,” he said. “That would be disastrous. FirstNet has to take a hybrid approach that’s flexible enough to allow for local innovation but provides guidelines about architecture and governance. They have to make sure it is not all top down and sending everything out from on high, but have some ideas bubble up from the states and leave room for innovators. We need to be empowered, not impaired. But we need to build something that works instead of finger pointing. Yes, there are concerns, but let’s develop it and if there are problems, we’ll fix them.”

Charlotte’s Robinson said that during the planning period, states need to figure out how to use resources they already have to drive costs down. “We have to turn our brains around: We have to think less about how to make money off our assets and more about how to save money on this effort; how to make things easier and less challenging.” For instance, he said, states could look for opportunities to create model memorandums of understanding for physical assets for the whole state.

Robinson fears the FirstNet effort could fall victim to the same political strife that has hit the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, with some states choosing to participate as little as possible. “FirstNet is reaching out to early adopters that are making progress on planning and coordination,” he said. “And I think it is a no-win situation to be in the position of not supporting public safety. It is sad, because this is about improving our response to emergencies that impact the citizens we serve. And FirstNet is not the federal government. Look at the board and the general counsel. These are the good guys.”

David Raths  |  contributing writer