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100 Days at the FirstNet Authority: governance, engagement, and a look ahead

This is the second of a 2-part series by Joe Wassel, First Responder Network Authority Executive Director and CEO, on his thoughts, insights, and vision for the future of public safety communications.

Before the FirstNet Authority, I spent my career in the Department of Defense as an advocate for public safety communications and network security. Stepping into the Executive Director and CEO role here in March 2023, I immersed myself in our public safety engagement, contract oversight, and program management efforts to understand how these critical functions were managed here.

One of my takeaways is the FirstNet network has an unparalleled level of oversight and governance.  This provides public safety with the benefits and assurances they cannot get from any other network – it truly is unique to FirstNet.

Strong governance and oversight for public safety

In my last blog, I outlined the extensive contract oversight processes that are in place to ensure that our network contractor, AT&T, delivers the best broadband network for public safety. In addition to these oversight functions, the FirstNet Authority works outside of its partnership with AT&T to form a strong governance framework for the benefit of public safety.  

It all starts with Congress, which created our organization and gave us the important mission of building a nationwide network for public safety communications. Both the House and Senate conduct routine oversight of how we are fulfilling our mission, and we appreciate their continued commitment to making sure the public safety network serves all of public safety. 

We also work with federal entities with expertise in the areas of telecommunications and public safety communications, such as the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR) division. Working closely with NTIA and PSCR ensures we are in lockstep with federal government agencies leading efforts related to broadband, 5G, and public safety technology research and development.

Accountability for public safety’s network

The FirstNet Authority is routinely audited by the Government Accountability Office and Commerce’s Office of the Inspector General, providing helpful recommendations to enhance our rigorous contract management and administrative processes.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) also serves an important role through its oversight of our license for the 700 MHz Band 14 spectrum. The FCC recently renewed our license after conducting a thorough review process and open proceeding. In its order approving the license, the Commission concluded that the FirstNet Authority met its requirements established by Congress in the legislation to build and operate an interoperable nationwide network.   

FirstNet is the only communications network that brings together public safety organizations throughout the nation with policymakers, lawmakers, and regulators to provide an unprecedented level of assurance and oversight to emergency communications.

What’s next for FirstNet  

I joined the FirstNet Authority at a pivotal time. The initial buildout of the network is nearing completion, covering 99% of Americans. A robust ecosystem of apps, devices, and coverage solutions designed to meet public safety needs is widely available. More than 25,000 public safety agencies and organizations use 4.7 million FirstNet connections across all 56 states and territories. It’s remarkable growth in just five years, but it cannot be our only benchmark for success.

With the network and ecosystem in place, we are now positioned to ask—what’s next for FirstNet?

We recently released the newest version of the FirstNet Authority Roadmap, which outlines the growth, evolution, and advancement of FirstNet. Developed based on public safety input and market research, the Roadmap ensures we focus programs, activities, and investment dollars on public safety’s most pressing operational needs. With the Roadmap as our guide, we will continue to provide a dependable network that enables connected responders and helps operationalize advanced technologies.

We are also listening to the public safety community. Our focus is on understanding how to address emerging issues that various first responders face with the help of broadband technologies. When I talk to EMS practitioners, I hear concerns about fentanyl. Law enforcement officials tell me about mass casualty events. Firefighters are facing new risks from battery fires. The 9-1-1 community is addressing the transformational aspects of NG911 and a nationwide staffing shortage. And emergency management wants to be prepared for a complex catastrophic event combined with a cyber event.

I want the public safety community to know that the FirstNet Authority will continue to champion public safety and work together to develop solutions to ever-evolving challenges. We are stepping up our efforts to promote education, training, and awareness of the significant benefits of FirstNet. And we are committed to supporting the network communications needs of public safety so they may deliver on their mission and ensure that every first responder can return home to their families and friends at the end of the day.

Click here to see the first part of this 2-part series by Joe Wassel, First Responder Network Authority Executive Director and CEO, on his thoughts, insights, and vision for the future of public safety communications.

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