A start to stronger oversight of FirstNet

By: Kathy Grillo

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For years, government agencies and public safety associations have raised concerns about the lack of oversight of FirstNet and its relationship with AT&T. Recently, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) took a significant step to address the problem. In renewing FirstNet’s license for the 700 MHz Band 14 spectrum, the FCC adopted meaningful conditions to tighten its oversight of FirstNet. The Commission also left open the possibility of taking additional action if needed.

In 2012, Congress established FirstNet, a governmental entity housed within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), to build and operate a nationwide broadband network for public safety users. To help FirstNet fulfill its public safety objective, Congress provided $7 billion in funding and 20 MHz of spectrum. Over the years, however, scrutiny over how taxpayer money is being spent and whether FirstNet is fulfilling its mission to serve all public safety users has been lacking. 

In addition, it has become clear that public safety entities across the U.S. appreciate the choice and freedom to determine which products and services will help them best serve their communities. In fact, today, Verizon serves a majority of our nation’s first responders. We compete for their business, developing products and mission-critical solutions to meet their needs. We believe that this competition benefits public safety by driving innovation and ensuring that America’s first responders have access to the best, most reliable and secure networks.

The FCC’s recent action to tighten oversight of FirstNet is timely and consistent with concerns that other government agencies have raised. A Government Accountability Office report called for FirstNet to develop credible oversight mechanisms and share information with public safety stakeholders. The Department of Commerce Inspector General raised questions about FirstNet’s network security, investment decisions, procurement practices, and contractor accountability, concluding that the lack of oversight of the FirstNet Authority puts “the billions of dollars that fund it at risk of not achieving intended results.” In addition, public safety organizations, including the National Sheriffs’ Association and the Major City Chiefs Association, have urged for greater scrutiny of FirstNet and its relationship with AT&T.

Absent appropriate scrutiny, AT&T has benefited greatly from its relationship with FirstNet. For example, AT&T has diluted the definition of first responders to find ways to get a wide range of users – including landscapers, tow truck drivers, and media – on the FirstNet network. In fact, now more than half of AT&T’s overall post-paid wireless growth comes from FirstNet signups. Meanwhile, FirstNet – a government entity – is openly advocating for AT&T’s commercial interests by asking the FCC to allocate the 4.9 GHz band of wireless spectrum to FirstNet, which would negatively impact thousands of local public safety agencies and programs that are currently licensed to use this spectrum. 

The FCC’s conditional license renewal is an important first step toward ensuring that FirstNet complies with its government mandate and manages AT&T in a manner that prioritizes public safety and first responders. More oversight from Congress, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the FCC and public safety stakeholders is critical. As the #1 network choice in public safety, Verizon will continue to work with first responders and policymakers in demanding transparency, competition, and performance for America’s public safety communication networks.

About the author:

Kathy Grillo is Verizon's senior vice president and deputy general counsel, public policy and government affairs.

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