Public-Safety Broadband Network:

FirstNet Should Strengthen Internal Controls and Evaluate Lessons Learned

GAO-15-407: Published: Apr 28, 2015. Publicly Released: Apr 28, 2015.

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What GAO Found

The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) has made progress carrying out its responsibilities established in the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 (the 2012 act) but lacks certain elements of effective internal controls. FirstNet is charged with the complex and challenging task of establishing a new, nationwide, wireless broadband network for public safety entities, in consultation with federal, state, local, and tribal stakeholders. The network will initially support interoperable data communications, and later integrate mission-critical voice capabilities as public safety standards for voice communications are developed. FirstNet has made progress establishing an organizational structure, planning for the network, and consulting with stakeholders. FirstNet has also begun establishing policies and practices consistent with federal internal control standards. Officials told GAO that they plan to continue to do so. However, FirstNet has not fully assessed its risks or established standards of conduct—which is an important form of ethical guidance for its personnel . Given that FirstNet faces numerous risks to achieve its complex objectives, fully assessing risks could help FirstNet achieve its objectives and maximize use of its resources. Developing standards of conduct could also help FirstNet address any performance issues in a timely manner.

A nationwide public-safety broadband network has been estimated by various entities to cost billions of dollars, and FirstNet faces difficult decisions determining how to fund the network's construction and ongoing operations. These estimates indicate the cost to construct and operate such a network could be from $12 to $47 billion over the first 10 years. The actual cost of FirstNet's network will be influenced by FirstNet's (1) business model, especially the extent of commercial partnerships; (2) use of existing infrastructure; (3) efforts to ensure network reliability; and (4) network coverage. For example, the cost of the network may be higher if FirstNet does not utilize partnerships and some existing infrastructure. To become self-funding, FirstNet is authorized to generate revenue through user fees and commercial partnerships. However, FirstNet faces difficult decisions in determining how to best utilize these revenue sources. For instance, widespread network coverage can attract more users and revenue, but is expensive to construct and maintain, especially in rural areas.

FirstNet has taken steps to collect and evaluate information and lessons from the five “early builder projects” that are developing local and regional public-safety networks, but could do more to ensure that the lessons are properly evaluated. For example, FirstNet has asked the projects to report on the experiences of their networks' users and has assigned contractors to collect and log lessons. However, FirstNet does not have a plan that clearly articulates how it will evaluate those experiences and lessons. Although FirstNet told GAO that it remains in close contact with early builder projects, GAO has previously found that a well-developed evaluation plan for projects like these can help ensure that agencies obtain the information necessary to make effective program and policy decisions. Given that the early builder projects are doing on a local and regional level what FirstNet must eventually do nationally, an evaluation plan can play a key role in FirstNet's strategic planning and program management, providing feedback on both program design and execution and ensuring FirstNet has not missed opportunities to incorporate lessons the projects have identified.

Why GAO Did This Study

For communications during emergencies, public safety officials rely on thousands of separate systems, which often lack interoperability, or the ability to communicate across agencies and jurisdictions. The 2012 act created FirstNet within the Department of Commerce to establish, for public safety use, a nationwide, interoperable, wireless broadband network, which will initially support data transmissions. The 2012 act established numerous responsibilities for FirstNet, provided $7 billion for network construction, and required FirstNet to be self-funding beyond this initial allocation. As part of the effort, FirstNet is working with five “early builder projects” that are building local and regional public-safety broadband networks.

GAO was asked to examine FirstNet's progress in establishing the network. GAO assessed (1) FirstNet's progress carrying out its responsibilities and establishing internal controls, (2) how much the network is estimated to cost and how FirstNet plans to become self-funding, and (3) what lessons can be learned from the early builder projects. GAO reviewed FirstNet documentation and public-safety network cost estimates, surveyed all state-designated FirstNet contacts, and interviewed FirstNet officials and public safety stakeholders selected for their telecommunications and public safety experience.

What GAO Recommends

FirstNet should complete its risk assessment, develop standards of conduct, and develop an evaluation plan for early builder projects. FirstNet concurred with the recommendations.

For more information, contact Mark L. Goldstein at (202) 512-2834 or goldsteinm@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Communication systems are essential for public safety officials, especially first responders such as police, firefighters, and paramedics, to gather and share information during emergencies. Oftentimes these communication systems lack interoperability (the capabilities that allow first responders to communicate with their counterparts in other agencies and jurisdictions with differing systems) which has been a long-standing concern. The Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 provided resources, including both spectrum and billions of dollars, for the establishment of a nationwide, interoperable wireless broadband network specifically for first responders. In particular, the 2012 act created the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) as an independent authority within the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration to establish a nationwide public-safety broadband network. In 2015, GAO reported that while FirstNet has made progress carrying out its responsibilities established in the 2012 act, it lacked certain elements of effective internal controls. Specifically, FirstNet had not fully assessed its risks or established standards of conduct, which is an important form of ethical guidance for its personnel. In an internal control system, according to federal internal control standards, management should assess risks facing the entity as it seeks to achieve its objectives. Additionally, federal internal control standards state that an internal control system should have a control environment that provides the basic structure that helps an entity achieve its objectives. Therefore, GAO recommended that FirstNet should strengthen its internal control system by fully assessing risks, developing standards of conduct, and evaluating performance against these standards. In 2018, GAO confirmed that FirstNet has implemented an Enterprise Risk Management program, and has produced quarterly reports for the Secretary of Commerce that detail potential risks and mitigation strategies. These activities involved a full assessment of FirstNet's risks and are likely to help FirstNet achieve its objectives and maximize use of its resources. Furthermore, GAO confirmed that FirstNet has developed standards of conduct and evaluated FirstNet personnels' performance against these standards. As a result, FirstNet should be better equipped to address any performance issues in a timely manner.

    Recommendation: To improve the accountability and transparency of FirstNet's operations, and ensure that FirstNet is gaining as much knowledge from the early builder projects as possible, FirstNet should strengthen FirstNet's internal control system by fully assessing risks, developing standards of conduct, and evaluating performance against these standards.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: National Telecommunications and Information Administration: First Responder Network Authority

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: To improve the interoperability of communications among first responders, the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 created the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) and tasked FirstNet with establishing a nationwide broadband network for public safety use. In April 2015, we reported on FirstNet's progress establishing this public safety network, and found that it could learn lessons from the five "early builder" projects that received federal funding to deploy local and regional public safety networks similar to what FirstNet is required to establish on a national scale. We found that, while FirstNet has taken steps to collect and evaluate lessons from these five projects, it could do more to ensure the lessons are properly evaluated. Specifically, we found that FirstNet has asked the projects to report on the experiences of their networks' users and assigned contractors to collect and log lessons, but that it does not have a plan that clearly articulates how it will evaluate those experiences and lessons. We previously reported that a well-developed evaluation plan for projects like the early builder projects could help ensure that agencies obtain the information necessary to make effective program and policy decisions. Consequently, we recommended that FirstNet develop an evaluation plan that includes a detailed data-analysis plan for the early builder projects' performance and results, including how the observations and lessons learned reported to FirstNet and identified by consultants will be evaluated. In response to our recommendation, FirstNet completed the Early Builder Projects Evaluation Plan in July 2015. Specifically, the plan serves as an "umbrella" document that outlines how FirstNet will process lessons learned, explaining how FirstNet will go about analyzing, evaluating, and communicating the observations and lessons that are reported and collected from the projects. As a result of developing this evaluation plan, FirstNet will be better positioned to gain as much knowledge as possible from the experiences of the early builders, and will be able to better ensure that their lessons have been addressed and incorporated, if applicable, into FirstNet's planning and decision making.

    Recommendation: To improve the accountability and transparency of FirstNet's operations, and ensure that FirstNet is gaining as much knowledge from the early builder projects as possible, FirstNet should develop an evaluation plan that includes a detailed data-analysis plan for the early builder projects' performance and results, including how the observations and lessons learned reported to FirstNet and identified by consultants will be evaluated.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: National Telecommunications and Information Administration: First Responder Network Authority

 

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