The federal government has another multibillion-dollar IT mess on its hands.
In 2012, the government began work on a massive, nationwide public safety wireless broadband network intended to help police, firefighters and other first responders communicate quickly in the event of major disasters. Three years later, lawmakers and auditors are questioning whether that First Responder Network, or FirstNet, will ever actually get off the ground.
Senator John Thune (R-SD), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, even compared it to the tech-troubled disaster of HealthCare.gov during a committee hearing assessing FirstNet’s progress Wednesday.
“The challenge of setting up [FirstNet] is arguably many times greater” than the troubled health care portal, Thune said.
The senator has a point. Though HealthCare.gov was built to facilitate access to insurance coverage for millions of people living in at least 34 states, FirstNet is estimated to cover around 3.8 million square miles of ground in offering network access to first responders in 56 states and territories.
Like HealthCare.gov, the project is already struggling with potential cost overruns and management issues. Plus, there’s still a lingering question about whether states will even want to participate in the network, or if they’ll opt to continue operating on their own.
FirstNet was set up under the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012. The law created the First Responder Network Authority to set up and run the project. It was originally allocated $7 million, along with $125 million in grants to give to states that wish to use the network.
Officials say that the project will pay for itself by finding commercial partners and charging user fees, as well as using existing equipment.
Federal auditors don’t seem to buy it and are warning that the project is going to cost tens of billions of dollars. They say that unless the agency starts figuring out who will pay, the entire project is in jeopardy.
“A nationwide public safety broadband network is estimated to cost billions of dollars and FirstNet faces difficult decisions determining how to fund the network’s construction and ongoing operations,” the Government Accountability Office’s Mark Goldstein said during Wednesday’s congressional hearing.
The GAO estimated that the program would cost between $12 billion and $47 billion over the next 10 years. The wide range in estimates also demonstrates how unclear the program’s plan is right now.
The cost will ultimately come down to how many states and local first responders want to participate, and how many commercial partners the project can attract.
A Congressional Research Service study raised the issue of sustainability earlier this year. “Congress may want to consider ways to ensure that FirstNet will be self-sustaining and that the states will have adequate funds to participate in FirstNet and to maintain public safety communications networks,” it said, adding that the projects costs are estimated to soar to the tens of billions for construction as well as routine maintenance costs.
Thune also brought up those potential funding issues down the road. “FirstNet must work diligently to make itself a self-funding entity because, frankly, we are not in a budget environment that can easily tolerate spending more than the $7 billion in taxpayer dollars that has already been committed to the network,” he said.
The First Responder Network Authority is setting up consultations to figure out if and how FirstNet can be implemented in each state. The agency is required to submit a proposal to each state about how the network will be set up. The states will then review those plans and the governors will decide whether or not to approve them.
There’s no guarantee that states will sign up. Under the law, states have the right to opt out of FirstNet and develop their own first responder network. As the CRS study mentions, persuading states to use FirstNet instead of their own network could prove challenging since each state is already operating on their own networks, using different rules and technologies.
“My expectation is we might see a few bumps along the way,” First Responder Network Chairman Susan Swenson acknowledged Wednesday.
While the goal is to have FirstNet up and running by 2022, lawmakers cast serious doubts about that timeline. Regardless, Swenson seemed optimistic that the project would move ahead on schedule — and that it will succeed.
When asked if FirstNet will meet its operational goal, Swenson jokingly responded, “If we don’t, we should be shot.”
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