After Sept. 11 exposed huge holes in U.S. public safety communications capabilities, Congress in 2012 created the First Responder Network Authority (better known as FirstNet) to build a nationwide wireless broadband network dedicated to public safety and emergency response. The nation's 5.4 million first responders would no longer have to rely on commercial carriers to communicate and transmit critical information during major emergencies. It didn't work out so well, reports Governing. To fund the project, the Federal Communications Commission auctioned off some surplus radio frequencies currently held by TV broadcasters to cover the estimated $7 billion in startup costs. Ongoing operations of FirstNet are funded by fees charged to the public safety agencies expected to use the network.
The board's first chair, Samuel Ginn, faced two problems: First, how to staff FirstNet with enough expertise to build a reliable nationwide wireless broadband network using the latest technology; and second: how to do it fast. The needs of tech innovators rapidly run into problems with government staffing, which is traditionally a drawn-out, rule-based process to secure dedicated, long-term workers. In the board's rush to find technical expertise, it ignored the most important constituency: the EMTs, firefighters and police who were actually supposed to use the system. Today, FirstNet appears to be moving in a new direction. Several members of the original team, including Ginn, have resigned. The project is now under the direction of Acting General Manager T.J. Kennedy, a former cop and firefighter.