The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) faces various challenges in implementing its public safety broadband network, according to a recent review conducted by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). GAO was tasked by Congress to asses FirstNet’s efforts to establish the network, to examine stakeholder views on network reliability, security, and interoperability challenges it faces, and to review FirstNet’s plans to oversee its network contractor, AT&T. For its report, the office reviewed FirstNet documentation, key contract oversight practices identified in federal regulations and other resources, tribal communication practices identified by federal agencies and assessed FirstNet’s efforts and plans against those practices.
The report found that FirstNet has conducted key efforts to establish its network, namely releasing the request for proposal and awarding the contract to AT&T. As the primary contractor, AT&T is responsible for the overall design, development, production, operation, and evolution of the network. When contacted by GAO, state officials said that they were generally satisfied with FirstNet’s efforts to engage them. Yet, tribal stakeholders indicated that they were concerned that FirstNet had not fully engaged in effective communication with individual tribes.
Among the top issues identified by GAO were concerns related to providing coverage to rural areas, in buildings or underground; ensuring the network’s overall resilience and cybersecurity; and managing frameworks for user identity, credentialing of users, access management, and prioritization of users on the network. While the majority of stakeholders were satisfied with FirstNet’s efforts, many noted that uncertainty remains about how the network will ultimately be implemented.
To address some implementation concerns, FirstNet established a Network Program Office to oversee AT&T’s performance and facilitate quality assurance of contract deliverables. However, FirstNet has yet to conduct long-term projections of staffing needs for the office as of April. As a result, GAO said, FirstNet lacks reasonable assurance that it will have sufficient resources to handle increases in its responsibilities over time. The report added that FirstNet would be in a better position to fully understand its staffing needs and respond to staffing changes and risks as it assumes full responsibility for contract administration in the future.
GAO recommended that FirstNet fully explore tribal stakeholders’ concerns and assess its long-term staffing needs. FirstNet agreed with the report’s recommendations.