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FirstNet CIO builds up his shop

Jim Gwinn

FirstNet CIO Jim Gwinn says he enjoys the feel of operating in what is essentially a high-tech startup inside government.

Jim Gwinn, a telecom and IT veteran with stints in government and the private sector, sees the CIO post at FirstNet as the culmination of his previous experience.

As CIO of the Farm Service Agency, he was responsible for modernizing enterprise computing for 2,200 far-flung county offices nationwide, many in remote communities. As an executive at MCI and Verizon, he oversaw network management and provisioning, and helped manage Verizon's "call-before-you-dig" effort, which took inventory of the provider's underground infrastructure in order to help prevent network disruptions caused by errant construction. In other words, he knows where the fiber is buried.

This broad experience fits nicely with the process of standing up FirstNet (short for First Responder Network Authority), a public-sector effort housed at the Commerce Department to build an interoperable, nationwide, broadband communications network for public safety workers and first responders.

The network will enable voice, text, photographic and video transmissions using the high-bandwidth Long-Term Evolution technology. It has to work in rural and urban areas, and it must function in crisis situations, when communications networks are likely to be taxed by ordinary people checking in with friends and family.

The initial effort is to be funded with as much as $7 billion in proceeds from the upcoming auction of broadcast spectrum to be conducted by the Federal Communications Commission sometime in 2015. In the meantime, FirstNet has access to a $2 billion line of credit to fund operations. Eventually, funding is expected to come on a fee-for-service basis from law enforcement community customers.

But to build out its network within its financial constraints, FirstNet is looking to leverage existing public and private sector infrastructure, like cellular towers and backhaul networks.

"It's a very important mission," Gwinn, who's been on the job since early April, told FCW. "It enables a lot of capabilities that don't exist today. The challenges are phenomenal and seemingly endless."

The demand for the system grew out of the frustration among first responders after 9/11, when New York City police and fire departments couldn't communicate directly with each other, or with other law enforcement entities like the Port Authority police and the FBI. Problems with interoperability continue to bedevil emergency responders in situations that require multiple agency responses, like last year's Navy Yard shooting. At the same time, FirstNet has met with some resistance from states, which want to go their own way in building public safety networks. FirstNet must convince enough of the 60,000 law enforcement entities nationwide to buy into the system for it to be viable.

For Gwinn, the sales pitch is about "enabling [public safety workers] to do their job better, and giving them the ability to focus on their core competencies." First responders should not have to worry about things like, "will the network be up, will it stay up, will it support communications and collaborations when needed," he said.

Right now, FirstNet is in the process of scoping out its network, pitching the system to state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies, staffing up, and moving out of its downtown D.C. space at Commerce into a leased facility in Reston, Va. (FirstNet is also establishing an office in Boulder, Colo.) Gwinn estimates the agency has doubled in size in the last three months.

And in late April, FirstNet announced the hiring of another telecom veteran, Ali Afrashteh, to serve as CTO. Gwinn said he enjoys the vibe of being at what is essentially a high-tech startup within the government.

"The challenges and opportunities extend beyond job descriptions in many cases," he said. "There are opportunities to move among the functional areas within the organization. It's entrepreneurial by nature, to take something very small and support something very big."

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