Urgent Matters

FirstNet should be applauded for keeping its promise, delivering final RFP on time

by Donny Jackson
Dec 10, 2015

We won't know about the details of FirstNet's final request for proposal (RFP) until it is released next month, but the fact that FirstNet will be able to issue this RFP in a timely manner is huge accomplishment. All involved—board members and staff—deserve plaudits for making it happen under challenging circumstances.

What a difference a couple of years can make. Yesterday, the FirstNet board unanimously approved the release of a request for proposal (RFP) early next month that will be designed to attract a private-sector partner, so the vision of a nationwide public-safety broadband network finally can become a reality.

Yes, FirstNet will release its 508-page RFP, as promised. The only reason it won’t be released by the end of the year is to let interested parties enjoy their holiday seasons. And, by all accounts, a key reason for the RFP coming to fruition within the designated timeline is the leadership of FirstNet Chairwoman Sue Swenson, who assumed the helm of the struggling organization just 18 months ago, in June 2014.

Swenson joined the initial FirstNet board in 2012 as an influential telecom executive, but her dedication to public safety and the FirstNet mission has generated tremendous respect throughout the first-responder community.

“Sue is one of us,” FirstNet Vice Chairman Jeff Johnson, a long-time public-safety leader, has said on numerous occasions. “She just gets it.”

Swenson’s willingness to listen to public safety—particularly to mend FirstNet’s relationships with the Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC) chaired by Harlin McEwen—was refreshing, but it is her get-the-job-done, accountability-oriented managerial style that may have proven most beneficial to the organization.

“If you tell Sue you’re going to do something, you better do it,” said one former FirstNet board member. “She holds people to their commitments.”

It’s an attitude that is pervasive throughout the FirstNet organization, part of a “culture” that Swenson, Johnson and TJ Kennedy—then serving as acting general manager or executive director—have referenced repeatedly during the past two years.

Given her passion for the FirstNet mission today, it’s hard to imagine that Swenson was tempted to leave the organization three years ago. But it almost happened.

“Last year, I seriously thought about not standing for reappointment [in August 2013],” Swenson said during her first public speech after being named FirstNet’s chairwoman in June 2014. “I was so frustrated with a couple of things that occurred, and I’ll tell you very honestly that I was literally that close to saying, 'I’ve had enough of this.'”

At that point during the latter half of 2013, FirstNet appeared to be floundering. Bill D’Agostino had been hired as FirstNet’s general manager in April of that year, but only after search/hiring process that seemed to take forever. Then, during D’Agostino’s initial FirstNet board meeting, board member Paul Fitzgerald levied serious allegations that public safety was being ignored by FirstNet and that some board members with commercial-wireless backgrounds had conflicts of interest.

Essentially without a staff, FirstNet board members were acting as the FirstNet staff, which greatly limited any potential for meaningful progress. Another problem was a lack of direction about which actions should be taken and who should be consulted, which was a source of considerable concern within the public-safety community.

In the words of baseball Hall of Famer/philosopher Yogi Berra, “You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there.”

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