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Keynote Remarks of Assistant Secretary Strickling at APCO Public Safety Broadband Summit

May 14, 2012

Keynote Remarks of Lawrence E. Strickling
Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information
APCO Public Safety Broadband Summit
Washington, DC

Seventy-seven years ago, a St. Louis police sergeant, Everett Fisher, invited representatives from around the country to meet to discuss police radio. His goal was to achieve, in his words, “the highest possible degree of efficiency…with the least amount of individual experimentation and expense.” Of course, out of those first meetings in 1935 emerged the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO).  Now, nearly eighty years later, the nation is about to embark on the challenging task of building the first national, interoperable broadband network for public safety, based on legislation enacted by Congress and signed into law by President Obama last February.

So many of you deserve credit for helping to pass this legislation. Thanks to your dedication and perseverance, Congress has assigned 20 megahertz of spectrum and approximately seven billion dollars of spectrum auction proceeds to bring your vision of an interoperable public safety network into reality.  At the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), we are hard at work interpreting and implementing the law to meet the requirement that we stand up the First Responder Network Authority—or FirstNet--by August 20th.

I am sure all of you are generally familiar with the framework of the legislation, but let me review some of the key points with you.

Congress has directed FirstNet to design, build, and operate a single, national interoperable network. In carrying out its work, FirstNet must consult with state and local governments, but it is important to understand that the law, by directing the creation of a single, national network, has moved away from the “network of networks” approach to public safety that has been an assumption of much of the thinking about public safety networks over the past years.

Thus, FirstNet must ensure nationwide standards for the network. It must issue open, transparent, and competitive Requests for Proposals for building and operating the network and must ensure the network operates on a breakeven basis, setting rates at a level to cover annual operating costs.

A second key direction of the legislation is that FirstNet cannot build a totally new infrastructure to deliver interoperable broadband services to public safety agencies. There simply is not enough money to build such an infrastructure. Instead, the law requires FirstNet to leverage, to the maximum extent possible, existing commercial wireless infrastructure, as well as existing state and local facilities, in the development of the network. In fact, the law expects that private industry will build and operate the network under contract and oversight by FirstNet.

Third, above all, Congress understood that for this network to be successful, it has to be developed through a collaborative process. For any business to be successful, it must be obsessed not just with meeting the needs of its customers, but with exceeding their expectations.

As we talk to industry leaders about this project, we are constantly told that the first order of business for FirstNet is to understand the needs of the customers—the first responders who will be depending on the performance of this network in their day-to-day work as well as in times of national crisis. At every step of the way, we will keep this mandate in the front of our thinking about setting up this new endeavor.

As we plan for FirstNet, we are intensely focused on understanding what it will take for FirstNet to be successful. There are three key areas where we are concentrating our energies right now and I would like to spend a few minutes on each of them so that you understand our priorities:

The three areas of concentration are:

1) Understanding the user requirements and developing the lines of communication between FirstNet and public safety organizations to ensure that FirstNet will design its network, and the services offered on that network, to meet the needs of first responders;

2) Selecting a board of directors of the highest skill and expertise; and,

3) Ensuring that the FirstNet board will have the freedom and flexibility to develop a sustainable business model that will offer services at an attractive price to public safety organizations.

Here is what we are doing in each of these areas.

On the first issue, NTIA is building lines of communication into all of the leading national public safety organizations. We want to be available to hear their concerns, answer their questions, and receive their advice.

The law requires FirstNet to consult with state and local public safety entities as it makes key decisions. NTIA must issue the requirements for a $135 million state and local implementation grant program by August. I am pleased to report that we have just issued a Request for Information to get input from public safety organizations, states, local governments, and anyone else who has ideas or advice for us on how we can best set up the grants program to receive the most meaningful input from the states and local governments. We will post the RFI today. It will be published in the Federal Register later this week with comments due in the middle of June.

In this Request for Information we ask commenters to identify data the states should compile for purposes of the consultation with FirstNet. We ask how states can collect information on existing infrastructure, such as towers and backhaul networks, which could be made available to FirstNet or to private industry bidding to build and operate the network.

This RFI is an important first step in what will be an ongoing consultation with states and local governments about FirstNet. We know we have to get this right in order to ensure a successful network and we encourage all of you to participate in this process by sending us your comments in June.

A second key job for us is the selection of the members of the FirstNet board of directors. Under the legislation, the board is comprised of 15 members. Three have permanent seats—the Attorney General, the Secretary of Homeland Security, and the Director of the Office of Management and Budget. Commerce Secretary John Bryson will select the other twelve members of the board, in accordance with the requirements set out by Congress.

We are seeking candidates for the FirstNet board who are national leaders in public safety, technology, network operations, and finance. We need executive-level leaders who can bring the expertise and creativity necessary to develop a state-of-the-art network that is highly resilient, secure, and financially self-sufficient. In addition to the law’s requirements of substantive expertise, Congress also directed that at least three board members represent the collective interests of states, local governments, tribes and territories. The board as a whole should reflect geographical diversity as well as urban and rural representation.

Given these different sets of requirements, selecting the board will be like solving a multi-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. To identify the most highly qualified candidates, we have been talking with public safety organizations, state and local governments, and industry. To make sure we did not overlook anyone, we issued a public notice inviting anyone to submit an expression of interest or a nomination by May 25.

In our conversations with public safety organizations, we have asked them not just for specific nominations, but also for a list of the attributes they would like to see in board members. One common theme raised by most of the organizations is that board members should be committed to the vision of a single national network as opposed to representing a single discipline or parochial interest. We are taking this advice to heart as we interview candidates for these important seats.

Our third area of focus is to make sure that no decisions are made now, whether by NTIA, the FCC, or others, that will reduce the freedom and flexibility the board will need to have to develop a sustainable business model for this network. Given the limited amount of dollars set aside for this network, we want to keep an eye on the potential costs of this network from the start. We need to scrutinize any decisions made now that could increase the cost of this network because of the impact it could have on the affordability of network services to public safety agencies and ultimately, the sustainability and success of the network.

The need for affordable service was brought home to me last week when I visited the Hennepin County, Minnesota public safety communications center.  The Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office uses commercial 4G service today.  The staff there told me that whatever service FirstNet offers in Minnesota will need to be price competitive with the roughly $40 per month that the Sheriff pays for commercial service or offer a lot more functionality in order for it to make economic sense for the Sheriff to switch to the FirstNet service.  So we need to pay attention every step of the way to controlling the costs of this network.

This effort is already requiring us to make hard decisions. Last Friday, I notified the seven states and communities that together received $380 million of Recovery Act funds that we were partially suspending their grants to allow us to work with each of them to determine the best path forward in light of the recent federal legislation.

The new law dramatically changes the assumptions on which we awarded these grants in 2010. These new circumstances, combined with our obligation to prudently manage federal dollars, require us to reassess how to proceed with these projects while FirstNet organizes itself to design and build the single interoperable network envisioned by Congress.

We have two key goals.

First, we want to keep the grant money in the states and communities that received the funding.

Second, we want to ensure the grant dollars are spent on facilities and equipment that will be incorporated into the FirstNet network.

We first raised the issue of taking a pause on these projects with our grantees in early April. Since then, we have heard from many stakeholders, including equipment vendors, that we should allow all these projects to go forward because we can learn from the experience of these projects and that this equipment will all be interoperable with and used in the FirstNet network.

I certainly acknowledge that proceeding with one or more of these projects could yield valuable information for FirstNet. However, proceeding with these projects when FirstNet has not even met, much less made any decisions about the network design, could put at risk the millions of taxpayer dollars that are funding these projects. Purchase and installation of 4G LTE equipment now could add costs to the FirstNet network and negatively impact the ultimate business case and deployment of the national network in ways that could make the network economically unattractive to public safety customers.

At NTIA, we are committed to the success of this network because of what it promises in improved safety and better communications for first responders. We must move forward in a way that appropriately balances near-term public safety needs with prudent management of limited resources and the longer-term goal of a truly nationwide and interoperable broadband network for public safety.

In closing, I want to thank you again for your efforts in encouraging Congress to enact the legislation for FirstNet. But our work is now just beginning. As we move forward to make Congress’ vision a reality, we will remember Sergeant Fisher’s hope that we work together to achieve the highest degree of efficiency with the least amount of individual experimentation and expense.

Thank you.