Fast Facts

The Department of Commerce’s FirstNet must establish a nationwide broadband network for public safety officials (like police officers and firefighters).

In 2017, FirstNet awarded AT&T a contract to deploy, operate, and maintain the network. AT&T is meeting contract milestones.

But since awarding the contract, FirstNet has shared little to no information about its contract oversight with state officials and other stakeholders. This has led to speculation about the extent of FirstNet’s oversight of AT&T, which could affect network users’ and stakeholders’ continued support of the program.

We recommended that FirstNet address this and other issues.

A police officer driving a cruiser with a laptop displaying a map

A police officer driving a cruiser with a laptop displaying a map

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Highlights

What GAO Found

AT&T is meeting—or on track to meet—all nationwide, contractual network coverage and usage (adoption) milestones for the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) public-safety broadband network. AT&T has met the first nationwide coverage milestone (20 percent of the final expected coverage by March 2019), but coverage varies across states. Similarly, AT&T is on track to meet the first nationwide adoption milestone (which is to have a certain number of devices connected to the network by March 2020). AT&T has exceeded adoption targets in most states but lags in others. According to FirstNet officials, variances by state are allowable, as the key milestones are nationwide.

FirstNet uses various mechanisms to oversee AT&T; many of which align with key contract-oversight practices. For example, FirstNet uses a quality assurance surveillance plan to evaluate AT&T's performance. However, GAO found that FirstNet lacked (1) a reliable master schedule to review, (2) communication with relevant stakeholders regarding contract oversight, and (3) meaningful information on end-users' satisfaction to gauge performance quality.

  • Schedule. AT&T is required to provide a current master schedule to FirstNet monthly, but the schedule only partially or minimally meets the characteristics of a reliable schedule per GAO best practices. For example, the schedule only partially captures all activities or the duration or sequence of activities. Key practices call for tracking a contractor's progress toward the expected schedule. Having a more detailed schedule to review could improve FirstNet's insight into AT&T's deployment and strengthen FirstNet's use of the schedule as a management tool.
  • Stakeholder communication. Numerous public-safety officials GAO interviewed were dissatisfied with the level or quality of information received from FirstNet, noting that FirstNet had communicated little to no information on AT&T's progress or FirstNet's oversight. FirstNet officials said there is no contractual requirement to share such information, but key practices call for communicating appropriate information to relevant stakeholders and reporting on monitoring results. The lack of information has left stakeholders speculating about what, if any, oversight FirstNet conducts; sharing more information about the oversight FirstNet conducts could improve public-safety sentiment for and support of the program.
  • End-users' satisfaction. FirstNet collects some information that could relate to end-users' satisfaction, but this information provides limited insight into users' experiences. For example, AT&T surveys some users to ask whether they would recommend FirstNet services, but a user might do so due to limited alternatives, not satisfaction. Although end-users' satisfaction is not a performance quality measure in the contract, key practices call for using end-user satisfaction information as a metric to gauge performance quality. By not using this information to inform FirstNet's oversight or related activities, FirstNet could be missing an opportunity to increase assurance of the program's long-term success.

This is a public version of a sensitive report that GAO issued in December 2019. Information that FirstNet deemed proprietary has been omitted.

Why GAO Did This Study

Public-safety officials such as police officers and firefighters rely on communications systems to do their jobs. The Department of Commerce's FirstNet must establish a nationwide public-safety broadband network for use by these officials. In March 2017, FirstNet awarded a 25-year, multibillion-dollar contract to AT&T to deploy, operate, and maintain the network. AT&T must meet milestones specified in the contract, such as for providing network coverage and for the network's adoption. FirstNet's oversight of AT&T's progress and performance is critical given the contract's scope and duration.

GAO was asked to review FirstNet's progress and oversight. GAO examined the extent to which (1) AT&T is meeting milestones for the network's coverage and adoption and (2) FirstNet is overseeing AT&T in accordance with key practices. GAO analyzed FirstNet and AT&T documentation; assessed FirstNet's oversight efforts against key contract-oversight practices identified in federal regulations and other government, academic, and industry guidance; and assessed the program's master schedule against GAO best practices. GAO interviewed FirstNet officials, and selected state, local, and tribal officials and first responders representing a variety of viewpoints. Although not generalizable, they provided useful perspectives.

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Recommendations

GAO is making four recommendations, including that FirstNet ensure the schedule aligns with GAO best practices, share additional oversight and other information with appropriate stakeholders, and utilize end-user satisfaction information to gauge performance. FirstNet agreed with GAO's recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
First Responder Network Authority FirstNet's Chief Executive Officer should take steps to ensure that the integrated master schedule for the program is developed and maintained in accordance with the best practices provided in GAO's Schedule Assessment Guide. (Recommendation 1)
Open
According to FirstNet officials, FirstNet is developing a basic schedule framework to implement this recommendation. FirstNet expects the framework to become fully operationalized by the end of 2021 and will use it as a planning tool. When we confirm that FirstNet has taken additional steps in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
First Responder Network Authority FirstNet's Chief Executive Officer should identify additional information about the program, including FirstNet's oversight and monitoring activities, that can be shared with public-safety stakeholders and periodically communicate and report this information to them. (Recommendation 2)
Open
According to FirstNet officials, FirstNet is developing a set of contract oversight and monitoring briefing materials that focus on the needs of the public-safety community. When we confirm that FirstNet takes additional actions in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
First Responder Network Authority FirstNet's Chief Executive Officer should share relevant portions of the accepted state-specific commitment reports with the states, as specified in the contract. (Recommendation 3)
Closed - Implemented
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 public-safety broadband network. In 2017, FirstNet awarded the contract to AT&T to deploy, operate, and maintain the network. The contract required AT&T to develop and deliver individual network deployment plans for each of the 50 states, 5 U.S. territories, and the District of Columbia (hereafter, states). The governor of each state had the opportunity to review the plan and opt in to allow FirstNet and AT&T to build the network in their state; all states opted in. The contract further required AT&T to report, by state, on the state-specific commitments made as a result of this state opt-in process. Portions of this report were to be shareable with states and, beginning April 2018, AT&T was required to deliver this report semi-annually. However, in 2020, we reported that reports had not yet been shared with the states, and that numerous state, local, and tribal stakeholders we interviewed described being generally dissatisfied with the level of information they had received from FirstNet. FirstNet officials told us there was no contractual requirement to communicate or share information collected, including any performance information or monitoring results, with any stakeholders or network users. However, key practices for contract oversight call for communicating appropriate information to relevant stakeholders and reporting on monitoring results. Therefore, we recommended that FirstNet share relevant portions of the state-specific commitment reports with the states, as specified in the contract. In 2021, we confirmed that FirstNet had taken action to implement this recommendation. Specifically, FirstNet restructured the reports so that FirstNet-eligible entities in the state can receive pertinent information related to their individual state network deployment status. For example, the reports are now to include network coverage maps at various levels. According to FirstNet officials, all states were offered state-specific status briefings and, as of January 2021, 44 states had received briefings utilizing the information contained in the reports, and briefings for the remaining states who accept the offer will be scheduled. Also according to FirstNet officials, because the reports are delivered twice a year, periodic updates will be available on a recurring basis during the lifecycle of the network deployment. As a result, FirstNet is better positioned to ensure it is communicating with stakeholders in an appropriate way, which industry guidance on project management that we reviewed-and which is cited in the contract-has noted can mean the difference between a project's success and failure.
First Responder Network Authority FirstNet's Chief Executive Officer should, in consultation with public-safety stakeholders and its contractor, as appropriate, identify and obtain periodic information or meaningful indicators on end-users' satisfaction that would serve as a metric to gauge performance quality, including the effect of the FirstNet network and products on public-safety operations. (Recommendation 4)
Closed - Implemented
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 public-safety broadband network. In 2017, FirstNet awarded the contract to AT&T to deploy, operate, and maintain the network. Use of the network by public-safety entities and officials (i.e., the network's "end users") is voluntary. In 2020, we reported that FirstNet was using various mechanisms to oversee AT&T's performance. However, we found that while FirstNet was collecting some information that could relate to end-users' satisfaction, this information provided limited insight into users' experiences. Additionally, numerous public-safety officials told us about experiences that fell short of their expectations for a public-safety broadband network backed by the government. Key practices for contract oversight call for obtaining information on end-users' satisfaction that can be used as a metric to gauge performance quality. As such, we recommended that FirstNet identify and obtain periodic information or meaningful indicators on end-users' satisfaction that would serve as a metric to gauge performance quality, including the effect of the FirstNet network and products on public-safety operations. In 2021, we confirmed that FirstNet had taken action to implement this recommendation. Specifically, FirstNet identified a set of indicators related to satisfaction that it could use when assessing network performance. FirstNet derives this information through a number of available resources, including required contract deliverables and direct engagement activities. FirstNet has also begun to obtain and utilize this information. For example, in 2020 FirstNet conducted a survey that included questions for current end users related to whether FirstNet products and services were different and better than the alternatives, benefit the users' operations, and are satisfactory. FirstNet has begun inputting this satisfaction information into an evolving dashboard that it intends to use to capture, analyze, and track its organizational metrics to inform its actions. As a result, FirstNet is better positioned to ensure that it is using information on the satisfaction of the first responders for whom the network is intended to inform its activities.

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