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Why FirstNet Needs State CIOs

Day two of NASCIO conference covers public safety communications, BYOD and project funding.

PHILADELPHIA -- How will the FirstNet nationwide public safety network impact state CIOs? That was key topic for day two of the NASCIO Annual Conference here on Tuesday. Here’s a rundown of some of the issues addressed and why the government shutdown didn’t prevent federal representatives from attending.

ESSENTIAL TRAVEL — The fact that former Utah CIO Steve Fletcher showed up in Philadelphia for his scheduled appearance on a FirstNet panel Tuesday is an indication of how important state CIOs will be in the rollout of a national public safety communications network. With the government shutdown derailing travel plans for federal employees, Fletcher — who now runs the NTIA’s State and Local Implementation Grant Program — wasn’t sure he’d make the trip. But after pitching the significance of the trip directly to his agency secretary, the travel was OK’d. “The secretary said to tell you how important you are as our partners,” Fletcher told attendees.

And Fletcher wasn’t the only one pointing out the link between FirstNet and state CIOs. FirstNet Board Member Jeff Johnson told attendees that state CIOs will play a pivotal role as gatekeepers for critical databases. “This will be a wireless pipe that you manage locally,” he said. “You’ll permission your data — we’ll follow your rules for access.”

COMPETITIVE PRESSURE — One critical question for FirstNet is how much will it cost? And the answer is, “We don’t know,” according to Johnson. He admits the board simply doesn’t know yet how much users will pay to be part of the new network. But he does know FirstNet must be competitive with commercial voice and data networks currently used by first responders. “We must bring a price for membership that you find attractive,” Johnson said. “It needs to be at or below what you currently pay for commercial voice and data — with benefits of a network built for public safety.”

EVEN IF YOU’RE OUT, YOU’RE IN — Is your state considering opting out of FirstNet? That’s actually not much of an option. States have three choices: opt in; stay silent and opt in by default; or opt out, leaving the state responsible to build, operate and maintain its own FirstNet-compliant network. “You are required by law to connect,” Johnson said. States that opt out of the nationwide network will have 180 days to release an RFP and build a network that connects to FirstNet. Another issue to consider: Does your governor have the statutory authority to sign the FirstNet plan that will be sent to his or her office? With a quick timeline of 90 days to decide, it’ll be important to know if your state legislature also needs to sign off on the plan.

WHO ARE YOUR USERS? — Since no one’s built a nationwide public safety communications network before, it’s unclear how many potential users of the service exist. It’s a number that’s never been counted, and one that will vary depending on how states define public safety users. Outside of traditional first responders like police and fire, states can decide if other roles — utility, public health and school safety representatives, for example — should have access to the nationwide network. To help with data collection and other preparation initiatives, the NTIA distributed $116 million in state and local planning grants earlier this year.

Other topics discussed during the day included how industry CIOs can strengthen their partnerships with government tech leaders and why state CIOs and budget directors need to collaborate.

DOLLARS AND SENSE — A NASCIO panel on building relationships between CIOs and budget officers offered an important tip for state IT leaders: Don’t pick a fight with the person who controls the checkbook. Scott Pattison, executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers, warned CIOs not to go around the budget officer by appealing directly to lawmakers for project funds. You may get money for one project that way, he said, but you can expect long-term repercussions. “You might win the battle, but you’ll lose the war,” noted Pattison’s fellow panelist, Michigan Budget Director John Nixon.

CHOOSE YOUR OWN DEVICE — BYOD doesn’t necessarily mean that employees want to use their own device, but that they would like a choice of devices. “Not many people are clamoring to bring a pink Sony Vaio to work,” said Larry Quinlan, CIO of Deloitte Consulting. Governments not wanting to fully embrace BYOD might consider creating a list of security-compliant smartphones, tablets and laptops for employees to choose from.

NASCIO AFTER DARK — CIOs looking to unwind after a long day of conference sessions have plenty of options. IT vendors traditionally compete to throw the best attended and/or most talked about parties. This year is no different. Here’s our unofficial rundown of who’s sponsoring after-hours events during the conference: Accenture, Amazon, NetApp, NIC, Lenovo, NTT Data, Symantec and Xerox.