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An Interview with Teri Takai on FirstNet

Ms. Teresa M. (Teri) Takai, who is the CIO for the United States Department of Defense (DoD), has been an exceptional leader in government for more than a decade. She served as state government CIO in both Michigan and California before joining DoD as CIO in 2010. Ms. Takai was appointed to the FirstNet Board of Directors in August 2012.

Ms. Teri Takai, DoD CIO and FirstNet Board Member
Ms. Teresa M. (Teri) Takai, who is the CIO for the United States Department of Defense (DoD), has been an exceptional leader in government for more than a decade. She served as state government CIO in both Michigan and California before joining DoD as CIO in 2010.

I consider it an honor to still know Teri, and it was a privilege to work as CISO under Ms. Takai in Michigan from 2003-2007.

Teri Takai was appointed to the FirstNet Board of Directors in August 2012. I asked Teri if she would be willing to be interviewed regarding FirstNet developments so far.  I am delighted that she agreed.

For readers not familiar with FirstNet, the following definition may help from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) website

       “The Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 created the First Responder Network  Authority (FirstNet) as an independent authority within NTIA. The Act directs FirstNet to establish a single nationwide, interoperable public safety broadband network. The FirstNet Board is responsible for making strategic decisions regarding FirstNet’s operations.”


Here's the interview:

Dan Lohrmann:  Why is FirstNet a vital service for our nation?

Teri Takai:  For too long our nation’s first responders have been hampered by a patchwork quilt of communications systems. That’s made it difficult to communicate across agencies and jurisdictions during emergencies. FirstNet will provide emergency responders with the first high-speed, nationwide network dedicated to public safety. FirstNet is designed to improve communication among local, state, regional, tribal and national emergency services personnel. The broadband data network will help save lives and keep our communities safer. It will be built using LTE, the most advanced wireless technology available today.


Dan: Tell us about your overall experience on the FirstNet Board so far.

Teri:  The FirstNet Board has been hard at work now for more than 8 months. We’ve been charged with the historic task of building a nationwide broadband network, but until very recently, we’ve had no full-time staff.  As a result, the FirstNet Board has taken on operational responsibilities not typically expected of a Board.  It’s been a lot of work, but I’m confident we are on the right path. Over the next few months, we’ll be transitioning to a new phase as full-time employees are hired.

I strongly feel that the selection of the board members has been well done.    I have to give credit to Larry Strickling from NTIA and his staff and also to Sam Ginn who has taken on the role of the chairman.  The board is the right mix of individuals with considerable experience in the private sector wireless industry and individuals with extensive experience in state, local and public safety roles.   I am proud to have been selected to serve on the board.  The board meetings are lively – which is great – as we work our way through many difficult issues.

My main role has been to represent the State Governors' offices which includes the CIO and other executive branch organizations. I have also served on the personnel selection committee.  We recently completed the selection of the General Manager and we will work with the new GM to fill his top-level positions. At the request of Jeff Johnson, the board member who has taken on the role of external outreach, I’ve stepped up to be the liaison to the Federal stakeholders which takes advantage of my being in the D.C. area and working with the other Federal agencies on a regular basis.


Dan:  In recent congressional testimony, FirstNet Chairman Sam Ginn described some lofty goals for FirstNet.  These goals include:

  • Meet the standards of public-safety-grade reliability
  • Provide coverage of every square meter of the U.S.
  • Offer costs that are equal to or less than subscribing to commercial broadband services
  • Secure state/local control
 Can you elaborate on these objectives for us? Are these goals achievable?

Teri:   We recognize the many technical challenges we face in building this network. We’re already hard at work putting some of the brightest minds in the field together to investigate solutions.  Board member Craig Farrill has been serving as the acting Chief Technology Officer for FirstNet. He’s assembled a team of technical experts who have been researching important questions like: What does it mean to provide “public-safety-grade reliability”? How can we guarantee service to the farthest reaches of our country? How can we do it at a cost that public safety can afford?  We don’t have all the answers right now, but we’re working on it.  And that’s why it’s so critically important that we gather input from state, local and regional governments, tribes, the public safety community and vendors on how this network should be built. Coverage requirements are key.  We must make FirstNet available to public safety where they need it and we plan to leverage existing state, federal, utility and commercial wireless assets to help keep costs down.

The question of what is achievable will be at the forefront of the Board’s thinking as we move through the next few months. The technology is challenging as we work to reach all of the U.S. with an affordable solution.


Dan:  According to several sources, the FirstNet Board is close to restarting several BTOP LTE (Broadband Technology Opportunities Program long term evolution) projects. What can you tell us about progress on that front?

Teri:  FirstNet and the seven public safety BTOP projects entered into spectrum lease negotiations in February.  Those negotiations are making progress and are ongoing.  It is important to note that a spectrum lease agreement is only one step in the process toward lifting the project’s suspension. Once an agreement is reached, the grantee must submit a request to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to lift the suspension. NTIA has the final decision as to whether to allow funding for the project to resume.


Dan:  The FirstNet board members recently announced the hiring of former Verizon Wireless executive Bill D’Agostino as FirstNet’s first fulltime general manager.  What is Mr. D’Agostino’s role?  What are his major objectives for the first year?    

Teri:  Bill D’Agostino is the general manager of FirstNet and runs the day-to-day operations. I can’t speak for Bill, but I do know he is working hard to get FirstNet up and running. One of his short-term goals is to hire a senior management team and transition some of the operational duties that have been performed by the FirstNet Board to full-time employees. He is also focused on continuing our outreach efforts, developing the FirstNet business strategy and supporting any BTOP first movers that spectrum lease agreements.


Dan:  What’s next for the FirstNet Board? What are the “To do’s” for the rest of 2013?

Teri:  FirstNet over the next few months will be engaging in extensive outreach with state, local and tribal entities and territories to better understand their unique public safety needs and challenges.  We began this “listening tour” last month with our first of six regional workshops in the Washington, D.C. area. Those regional workshops will wrap up the end of this month, but this is just one aspect of our outreach efforts. We anticipate holding individual meetings with states and territories as well, and we intend for this dialogue to be an ongoing process.

This state consultation will enable FirstNet to understand state infrastructure, coverage, resiliency, hardening, security, reliability, prioritization and training needs.  We need state input to conduct an effective vendor RFI/RFP process and deliver the FirstNet build-out plan that fits the needs of each state.

We will also be issuing a series of RFIs in the weeks ahead, enabling FirstNet to gather critical input from the vendor and public safety communities on the many complex issues surrounding the build-out of this nationwide broadband network.


Dan: Is there anything else that you’d like to say about FirstNet to the state and local government community?

Teri: We understand the critical role that you will play as we develop our plans for this network and we want to hear from you. We also understand that we must deliver a product that meets the needs of public safety at a compelling and affordable cost, or we will have failed. We want to become your trusted communications partner. To do that we are committed to working closely with your state point of contact to ensure there are no surprises when we present our plan for building out the network in your state. Our goal is to be your long-term partner in the deployment and operations of the network.

This is a challenging but exciting opportunity to provide the public safety interoperability that we have been talking about for so long.   There will be many different views and long-held opinions on how to do it. As we say, if this was easy, it would be done already. It is essential that state, local, tribal and public safety organizations come together to support interoperability. We are working to provide as much local flexibility as possible, but in the end, we will each have to put aside our political and personal perspectives to provide public safety and the public the communications that are essential to our safety and well-being.


Dan: Thank you, Teri, for taking the time to answer these questions. I know that federal, state and local government professionals around the U.S. appreciate your continuing service to our country.

Daniel J. Lohrmann is an internationally recognized cybersecurity leader, technologist, keynote speaker and author.