Homeland Security

FirstNet award on tap

Photo credit: John Roman Images / Shutterstock.com 

There isn't much suspense as the Commerce Department prepares to announce the winner of a $6.5 billion national wireless broadband emergency network contract.

That winner will most likely be AT&T, according to industry insiders familiar with the mammoth telecommunications contract. The telecom company is the only bidder left standing after others dropped out of the competition and a federal claims court's action.

FirstNet, an independent authority within the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, has been charged with creating a nationwide, interoperable wireless LTE radio network for first responders. It was established by the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross plans to make a formal announcement on March 30.

The network was mandated by Congress and is funded with $6.5 billion in seed capital drawn from $7 billion raised in a federal spectrum auction. However, the network is expected to cost far more than that to build and deploy, according to an April 2015 Government Accountability Office report, with some cost estimates running as high as $47 billion.

But the contract also comes with exclusive access to a swath of highly desirable spectrum, cleared nationwide for emergency use. The winning bidder will be able to lease the excess capacity or deploy it for its own customers.

The effort was prompted by tragic communications failures during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when firefighters, police officers and emergency medical personnel from multiple jurisdictions couldn't communicate with each other via their radios. Each service, and even fellow officers and firefighters in the same departments, used different technologies or different radio frequencies that couldn't interoperate. As a result, the 9/11 Commission recommended a dedicated public safety broadband network.

The contract had been tied up in federal court by Rivada Networks, which protested it should be able to compete against AT&T. The consortium, which includes Harris Corp., Intel, Fujitsu, Ericsson and Nokia, was formed specifically to pursue FirstNet. Rivada's protest was resolved on March 17, when U.S. Court of Federal Claims Judge Elaine Kaplan, denied the protest motion, clearing the way for the award.

The Rivada consortium's filing last November forced FirstNet to miss its anticipated contract award date that month.

After the fateful court ruling, Rivada Networks' top official vowed to continue competing with FirstNet and AT&T in the states for their interoperable wireless networks.

FirstNet allows state governors to opt out of using the nationwide network if their states can design and construct something comparable in a Radio Access Network.

The planning process for states, explained FirstNet President TJ Kennedy in a March 14 teleconference and presentation to FirstNet's board, begins with FirstNet and its contract partner making a plan for each state within the first six months of the contract's award. Those plans will be presented to governors in 56 states and U.S. territories, who then must decide whether to opt out within 90 days. To make their case for their opt out, they have 180 days to design and submit their own network plans to FirstNet.

FirstNet executives said in an early March board meeting that they have been preparing to move quickly forward once the contract is awarded. In a special meeting on March 28, FirstNet's board cleared a path to speed the contract's award, passing a resolution that authorized the FirstNet CEO to take all actions necessary to ensure the timely award of the contract.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, tele.com magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at mrockwell@fcw.com or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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