State CIOs Seek Help on Cyber, Answers on FirstNet

NASCIO members will lobby federal officials on state IT concerns this week.

by / April 29, 2015

State CIOs hope to secure more federal support for cybersecurity efforts, more details about FirstNet and more options for broadband grants as they meet with officials in Washington, D.C., this week.

Multiple state CIOs are meeting with officials from the White House, federal agencies and Congress Wednesday as part of the NASCIO Midyear Conference to focus attention on state-level IT issues and press for policy changes.

At the top of their priority list is more federal help on cybersecurity, where states are struggling both to fund cybersecurity programs and to lure qualified security professionals into the government workforce. CIOs will talk with White House Cybersecurity Coordinator Michael Daniel, federal lawmakers and representatives from the Department of Homeland Security about ideas for strengthening protection for state and local government information systems.

“Cybersecurity is the No. 1 policy issue for our members,” said Mitch Herckis, NASCIO’s director of government affairs. “The threat is growing and it’s difficult to address.”

What Would Help

Alabama CIO Brunson White is one of several state CIOs calling for more federal dollars to be directed toward state cybersecurity initiatives. He said the DHS needs to create a funding stream dedicated to protecting state systems and data so that cybersecurity doesn’t compete for money against police cars, fire trucks and other public safety gear. 

“I don’t want to take money away from those other essential things -- but we need help,” he said. “Cybersecurity is a hard thing for states to self-fund.”

Better intergovernmental coordination and information sharing is another concern. Federally funded resources like fusion centers and the Multi-State Information Sharing and Analysis Center are helping state governments improve their cybersecurity posture, said Ohio CIO Stu Davis. But more work needs to be done to ensure that threat information flows quickly between federal, state and local agencies.

Clarity, Please

Although state CIOs support the concept of a nationwide communications network for first responders, they’re frustrated with the lack of details coming from the federal government on how the new FirstNet network will be built and paid for.

At this point, CIOs have more questions than answers. They say they need to know how existing network infrastructure will be leveraged to form the new network, how big the pool of FirstNet users will be, and of course, how much first responders will pay to use it.

For instance, Kentucky CIO Jim Fowler wants to know how fiber being laid for a statewide broadband initiative fits into FirstNet’s plans. “What percent of those dark fibers that we’re going to put into the ground will FirstNet want?” he said. “Do they expect us to provide that level of technology for them to deploy?”

Consistency is another concern. Several CIOs complained that they are hearing different messages as FirstNet officials conduct state-by-state consultations in preparation to construct the network.

Davis said Ohio is collaborating with other states in its FEMA district to compare notes on what they hear from FirstNet officials and increase their clout in the design process.

“We talk among ourselves to make sure that what they’re hearing in Minnesota is the same as what they’re hearing in Wisconsin or Ohio or Indiana or Michigan,” he said, adding that the states also are banding together to make sure their concerns aren’t dismissed.

“We have more power if we’re collective like that, and we’ve been talking to the other NASCIO members about taking that approach too,” Davis said. “There’s more power with numbers.”

Perhaps the biggest question is how much the new network will charge users. Although FirstNet is dedicated to public safety, those users have not yet been defined. CIOs are watching to see if the user base is limited to traditional first responders like police and fire, or opened to other agencies – like transportation departments or utilities – that could be involved in disaster response. A larger user base could lower the amount each user pays to access the network, making it more attractive to state and local agencies.

Davis said Ohio already struggles to get local law enforcement to join its statewide radio system, which charges a monthly subscription fee of $20 per user, so keeping FirstNet fees low will be key to its success.

“We need to know the business model – the potential pool of users and the price of the service – before states can effectively help with adoption at the local level,” he said.

Connectivity Questions

Alaska CIO Jim Bates said extreme weather and remote terrain in his state present special challenges for both FirstNet deployment and giving citizens access to broadband Internet connectivity. Bates was one of several state CIOs hoping to convince federal officials to allow more flexibility in how states can use grant programs like E-Rate to improve broadband access.

“What I would say to the feds is, the amount of money coming into the state is plenty, but let’s find ways to do more with that money and find creative ways to solve that problem,” he said.

North Carolina CIO Chris Estes is hopeful that federal dollars will contribute to his plan to provide Wi-Fi connectivity in classrooms throughout the state. Although all 2,000 school buildings in North Carolina are linked to broadband Internet, just 25 percent of classrooms have connectivity.

Estes said the state plans to award a $44 million contract to boost that number to 100 percent.
The federal E-Rate program -- which provides grants to improve Internet connectivity for schools and libraries -- historically has concentrated on connecting buildings, not individual classrooms, he said.

“It’s important to us to change the E-Rate formula so that we can enable Wi-Fi in the classrooms,” Estes said. “The governor and I have been talking to the FCC about that for the last year. We’re optimistic that rules being finalized in May will allow E-Rate to contribute to that.”

Steve Towns

Steve Towns is the former editor of Government Technology, and former executive editor for e.Republic Inc., publisher of GOVERNING, Government TechnologyPublic CIO and Emergency Management magazines. He has more than 20 years of writing and editing experience at newspapers and magazines, including more than 15 years of covering technology in the state and local government market. Steve now serves as the Deputy Chief Content Officer for e.Republic.