Urgent Matters

FirstNet’s Ginn has quite a mess on his hands

by Glenn Bischoff
Apr 25, 2013

In the wake of FirstNet board member Paul Fitzgerald's allegations against fellow board members, Chairman Sam Ginn needs to keep his promise to pursue a prompt investigation, because it's likely that Congress will be monitoring the situation closely.

This week, Paul Fitzgerald—one of the four public-safety representatives on the FirstNet board of directors—blew his stack, alleging all sorts of misdeeds perpetrated by fellow board members. Chief among them is a lack of transparency between board members and a general misuse of the Public Safety Advisory Council. Of the latter, Fitzgerald accused fellow board members of treating the PSAC as a “necessary evil.”

None of this surprised me all that much. In our business, you hear things, and we’ve been hearing things for a while now regarding the machinations of the FirstNet board. What did surprise me is that Fitzgerald said it publicly. That’s a new experience. So far, any time we’ve heard a complaint about FirstNet, it has been uttered by people who spoke under the cloak of anonymity.

So what’s Fitzgerald’s deal? Is he a rogue who simply went off the reservation? Is he a shill for others who have an axe to grind with FirstNet? Or is he someone who simply is acting out of personal conviction? It’s difficult to know for sure, especially since he hasn’t responded to our calls for a follow-up interview. But it is very interesting that this time the vitriol is coming from within FirstNet, not from the outside where it usually comes from.

Also, Fitzgerald had to know that he would be castigated, and perhaps ostracized, by his board brethren once he aired the dirty laundry. The fact that Fitzgerald did so anyway tells me that there might be something to these allegations. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

This event reminds me of the missteps that occurred in the San Francisco Bay Area concerning a public-safety LTE pilot project that was underway while public-safety lobbyists were trying to convince Congress to reallocate the D Block to first responders. The project was a fiasco and threatened to undermine the lobbying effort. At the time, we reported on alleged improprieties concerning the vendor-selection and spectrum-leasing processes, as well as—get this—an “astounding lack of communication.”

So now it appears as if we’re experiencing a measure of déjà vu. Here’s what I wrote two years ago about the San Francisco Bay debacle—words that I believe ring true today:

“Rest assured that the federal government will not allow itself to be suckered, and will pull the plug on the nationwide network in a heartbeat, if it believes that the public-safety sector doesn’t have its house in order. It is imperative then that the San Francisco Bay Area mess is cleaned up pronto—and that every other region contemplating such a network buildout learns from their collective experience.”

Don’t think for a second that eyebrows didn’t arch on Capitol Hill when Fitzgerald uttered his diatribe. FirstNet Chairman Sam Ginn has pledged that he will get to the bottom of this and fix what needs to be fixed. That’s good, because he needs to get this done—fast. Congress tends to be an impatient and skittish lot, especially when billions of federal dollars are at stake.

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on Apr 26, 2013

Being the cynic that I have become, I’m not surprised either. For example, I can't help but wonder how much of the focus on a data only solution is an accommodation to the LMR manufacturers, rather than a true technical issue. However, it's no doubt also to neutralize the objections to use of commercial LTE carrier infrastructure for mission critical communications, since it is P-T-T and talk around voice that remains the most mission critical capability for public safety. So, with this approach, the commercial wireless carriers get access to the $7-8 billion in Federal funds for the network infrastructure, plus whatever additional funds they can convince Federal/State/local governments to spend on subscriber units and network access; and the LMR manufacturers don't lose whatever additional funds they can convince Federal/State/local governments to spend on LMR. Sadly, as always, the losers are the field-level users and the taxpayers, who will receive only a fraction of the return on investment in terms of mission capability that could have been provided by an independently designed and engineered fully integrated voice/data/video wireless broadband solution built to mission critical standards to support public safety and critical infrastructure providers (electric, gas, and water utilities). Such a solution could draw not only on funds allocated for public safety, but also those that will be spent on creating the communications infrastructure for the SmartGrid.
But, when you see how strong and influential a presence the LMR manufacturers, LTE manaufacturers, and wireless telecommunications carriers have managed to secure on governing and advisory bodies such as the FirstNet Board, the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council, and APCO and the large amounts they expend on lobbying at the Federal, State, and even local levels, you realize it is almost hopeless to think that the outcome could be any different. It’s difficult to fault them, since they are in business to make money for their shareholders. The fault lies with the Congress, State Legislatures, and government executive agency officials who allow it to happen…over and over.

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