McGinnis Says He’s Optimistic about Future of FirstNet

Newly reappointed First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) board member Kevin McGinnis recounted the challenges that proponents of a nationwide public safety broadband network have faced and said he’s optimistic about where FirstNet is going.  “I’m about as optimistic as you can get about this project,” Mr. McGinnis, who has been appointed to a new three-year term (see separate story), said at a town hall at the APCO 2015 show. “It’s going to work. I am convinced of that or I wouldn’t spend my time doing this.”

Public safety leaders sought for years to convince Congress to reallocate the 700 megahertz band D-block to public safety and to reserve funds for a nationwide network, Mr. McGinnis observed, and after FirstNet was established in 2012, there were early growing pains. They included industry and public safety board members who didn’t know each other well and had different views on how things should proceed, he said, with  industry veterans wanting to move ahead quickly to construct the network and public safety representatives stressing the importance of consultation and transparency.

“And the two didn’t blend really well,” he said. “And then you throw in the fact that we’re a federal entity and everything got screwed up – for a while.” But Mr. McGinnis noted the progress that FirstNet has made more recently, including hiring senior leadership. “We started out with a board and no staff. Today, it’s night and day,” he said.

He also noted that FirstNet has held initial consultation meetings with 46 states and territories in the past year. He said he was skeptical that FirstNet could complete all initial meetings in about a year, which it is generally on track to do. Mr. McGinnis, who has spearheaded tribal outreach efforts, also cited what he said have been successful efforts to reach out to tribes. Mr. McGinnis also noted that “naysayers” complained early on that FirstNet was giving “lip service” to its Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC). “It stayed quiet for a while,” he said of the PSAC, noting that it has stepped up its activities, including on early builder and tribal issues.

He also praised board Chairwoman Sue Swenson for pushing transparency and Vice Chairman Jeff Johnson for his energy and enthusiasm.

Summarizing the efforts to get a network built, Mr. McGinnis said, “When trying to accomplish something really, really important, the process usually isn’t pretty.”  Now we have a direction,” he said. “We know what we want to be and we know how we’re going to get there.”

Mr. McGinnis and outgoing board member Tim Bryan, who like Mr. McGinnis is an original board member, were asked what they have learned from industry and public safety board members, respectively. Mr. McGinnis said the industry board members have given him “an appreciation of the complexity of network building.” He also said that public safety board members, who are used to more transparent operations, “never really appreciated why, you know, the private industry does things behind closed doors and then springs a product.”

“I’ve truly come to learn how that … model is not necessarily  a bad one, and the trick today is to try and balance it with the demands of our law and our obligations to the public safety community to do this in the open,” Mr. McGinnis added.

Mr. Bryan said the fact that FirstNet is an independent authority within a federal agency and has to consult with states and other constituencies was foreign to industry veterans like him. “You don’t think about that in private industry much, right?” he said. “That was an eye-opener because I hadn’t been on that side.” He also cited the dedication of the public safety community to save lives.

Also during today’s session, TJ Kennedy, who is handling the functions of FirstNet’s president even though the position must be posted, gave no timeline on when FirstNet would issue a final interpretation of the definition of “public safety entity.” He noted that it has received input from stakeholders, adding, “We’re incorporating that feedback at this point.”

He also said that FirstNet representatives expect to attend more than double the events in fiscal year 2016 than they have attended in FY 2015. – Paul Kirby, paul.kirby@wolterskluwer.com