Public-Safety Broadband Network:

FirstNet Has Made Progress Establishing the Network, but Should Address Stakeholder Concerns and Workforce Planning

GAO-17-569: Published: Jun 20, 2017. Publicly Released: Jul 20, 2017.

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What GAO Found

The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) has conducted key efforts to establish the network, namely releasing the request for proposal (RFP) for the network and awarding the network contract to AT&T. As the contractor, AT&T will be responsible for the overall design, development, production, operation, and evolution of the network. Additionally, FirstNet consulted with state and local, federal, and tribal stakeholders. State officials GAO contacted were generally satisfied with FirstNet's efforts to engage them. However, tribal stakeholders GAO contacted expressed concern that FirstNet has not fully engaged in effective communication with tribes. FirstNet engaged tribes through a variety of mechanisms, such as through state points of contact and a working group, but tribes noted that individuals with first-hand knowledge of tribes' experiences are unable to represent tribal views directly among FirstNet's key decision makers. Although FirstNet is required to consult with tribes through state points of contact, a key principle of effective tribal communication is to seek full understanding of tribal concerns and reach consensus where possible. By fully exploring and proposing actions to address tribal stakeholders' concerns, FirstNet could help improve its relations with tribes and better meet stakeholders' needs.

According to stakeholders GAO contacted, FirstNet faces various challenges to ensure the network's reliability, security, and interoperability. For example, stakeholders raised concerns related to:

  • providing coverage to rural areas, in buildings, or underground;
  • ensuring the network's overall resiliency and cybersecurity; and
  • managing frameworks for user identity, credentialing of users, access management, and prioritization of users on the network.

FirstNet has taken action to address these challenges, such as by opening a test lab to test public safety devices and applications before deploying them on the network. The majority of stakeholders GAO contacted were satisfied with FirstNet's efforts, but many noted that much uncertainty remains about how the network will be implemented.

FirstNet established offices to oversee its network contractor, developed policies and procedures to guide contract administration—including management and oversight—and is receiving assistance from another federal agency with contract administration experience, although FirstNet plans to assume full responsibility in the future. For example, FirstNet established the Network Program Office to oversee the contractor's performance and facilitate quality assurance of contract deliverables, among other things. Although this office will perform essential contract-administration functions, FirstNet had not conducted long-term projections of staffing needs for the office as of April 2017. As a result, FirstNet lacks reasonable assurance that it will have sufficient resources to handle increases in its responsibilities over time. Planning for and assigning adequate resources, including people, and assessing resource needs is a key practice for planning and executing effective contract oversight. By performing a long-term staffing assessment for the Network Program Office, 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 of contract administration in the future.

Why GAO Did This Study

FirstNet is charged with establishing a nationwide public-safety broadband network that is reliable, secure, and interoperable. To inform this work, FirstNet is consulting with a variety of stakeholders. In March 2017, FirstNet awarded a 25-year contract to AT&T to build, operate, and maintain the network. FirstNet's oversight of AT&T's performance is important given the scope of the network and the duration of the contract.

GAO was asked to review FirstNet's progress and efforts to ensure the network is reliable, secure, and interoperable. GAO (1) examined FirstNet's efforts to establish the network; (2) obtained stakeholder views on network reliability, security, and interoperability challenges FirstNet faces and its efforts to address them; and (3) assessed FirstNet's plans to oversee its network contractor. GAO reviewed FirstNet documentation, key contract oversight practices identified in federal regulations and other sources, tribal communication practices identified by federal agencies, and assessed FirstNet's efforts and plans against these practices. GAO also interviewed FirstNet officials and a nongeneralizable selection of public-safety, tribal, and other stakeholders selected to obtain a variety of viewpoints.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that FirstNet fully explore tribal stakeholders' concerns and assess its long-term staffing needs. FirstNet agreed with GAO's 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: To improve the interoperability of communications among first responders, the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 (the 2012 Act) created the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) and tasked FirstNet with establishing a nationwide public-safety broadband network. In March 2017, FirstNet awarded the 25-year contract to build, operate, and maintain the network and is required by the 2012 Act to oversee the contract. In June 2017, we reported that although FirstNet had established various contract oversight mechanisms, it had not fully assessed its staffing needs, which was a key action that contributes to effective contract oversight. Specifically, FirstNet had not conducted long-term projections of staffing needs for its Network Program Office, which would perform essential contract-administration functions such as overseeing the contractor's performance and facilitating quality assurance of contract deliverables. Additionally, while FirstNet was receiving assistance from another federal agency with contract-administration experience, it planned to assume full responsibility for contract oversight and administration in the future. As a result, we found that-absent a long-term staffing assessment for the Network Program Office-FirstNet lacked reasonable assurance that it would have sufficient resources to handle increases in contract oversight responsibilities, especially as it assumed full responsibility for administering the contract. Consequently, we recommended that FirstNet assess the long-term staffing needs in the Network Program Office prior to requesting to assume full responsibility for administering the network contract. In 2018, we confirmed that FirstNet had assessed the long-term staffing needs of this office prior to assuming this responsibility. Specifically, FirstNet created a Strategic Workforce Plan for the office that outlines factors that affect long-term staffing needs, current and future staffing needs, and strategies to employ to fill gaps between the current and future needs. The plan covers fiscal years 2018 to 2022 and will be updated annually. As a result, FirstNet is in a better position to fully understand its staffing needs and respond to staffing challenges and risks going forward, which will help it oversee the successful implementation of the nationwide public-safety broadband network by its network contractor.

    Recommendation: To more fully address stakeholder concerns and help ensure FirstNet's resources reflect expected changes in responsibilities, FirstNet should assess the long-term staffing needs in the Network Program Office prior to requesting to assume full responsibility from Interior for administering the network contract.

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

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To more fully address stakeholder concerns and help ensure FirstNet's resources reflect expected changes in responsibilities, FirstNet should request that the Public Safety Advisory Committee's Tribal Working Group fully explore tribal concerns and propose actions, as needed, to address those concerns.

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

 

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