FirstNet: Still More Questions than Answers

State CIOs still need answers on the national public safety network.

by / June 1, 2015

If the FirstNet national first responder network succeeds, it’ll be because federal officials who are planning and deploying the network forged strong partnerships with states and localities. That’s why comments from state CIOs at the NASCIO Midyear Conference in April are troubling.

Although state CIOs generally support the concept of a nationwide interoperable public safety network, they’re clearly frustrated with the lack of details coming from the federal First Responder Network Authority about how the new network will be built and paid for.

“FirstNet is a fantastic idea, but people like me are very skeptical of something where nobody can show me the plan and nobody can show me the cost,” said Alabama CIO Brunson White. “I’ll remain skeptical until somebody does that, and we’ve been asking for a while now.”

Indeed, they have. It’s been three years since the initiative launched, and states still have more questions than answers. In interviews during the conference in Virginia, multiple CIOs struck a common theme: They’re still waiting to find out 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.

Also disturbing were complaints from several CIOs that they’re hearing different messages as FirstNet officials conduct state-by-state consultations in preparation to construct the network.

Ohio CIO Stu Davis said he’s collaborating with other states to compare notes on what they’re told by FirstNet officials. “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.”

Davis added that states also are banding together to increase their clout with the feds during the network design process. “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,” he said. “There’s more power with numbers.”

During the conference, CIOs met with FirstNet officials in Washington, D.C., to press their concerns — including how state-by-state deployment plans will be developed and how the new network will cover operating expenses. Ensuring that everyone’s on the same page with these and other important issues will be vital to the project’s future.

“We need to form a trusted partnership,” said Mitch Herckis, NASCIO’s director of government affairs. “If there’s significant intergovernmental disagreement, this network is just not going to get built.”

Trust appears strained right now. For the nation’s sake, it needs to be strengthened as this ambitious initiative moves forward.


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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. 

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