Andy Seybold’s Public Safety Advocate, February 26, 2016

Okay, I am confused. FirstNet posted its responses to the first one hundred of the four hundred questions it received between the time the RFP was issued and the February 12 deadline for submission. One of the questions and I believe probably more, had to do with the timing of the RFP response. The original dates provided only sixteen weeks between the time the RFP was made public and the due date. In response to requests to extend the deadline, FirstNet agreed to extend the Capability Statement date and the RFP due date by two weeks. This means the most important RFP FirstNet will ever issue is due back after only eighteen weeks on the street!

The RFP was issued one month shy of the fourth year anniversary of the law that created FirstNet. In all fairness, the first two years after the law was signed were not good years for FirstNet. It was being run by the NTIA instead of the FirstNet board of directors, hiring people was a painfully slow and tedious process, and the board faced some dissention that further complicated things because the NTIA, like any government agency, is totally averse to any hint of irregularities and things ground to a halt for almost nine months. But FirstNet came back strong, hiring was expedited, the board of directors began taking more control, and progress was evident. Still, it took two more years before FirstNet issued the most important RFP it will ever issue. Without a valid partner, FirstNet cannot exist. Congress made it clear that there will be no more federal monies allocated to FirstNet, so the private-public partnership is its only logical and legal course of action. So a draft RFP was circulated, questions were responded to, and comments were submitted.

The new RFP was said to be much more in tune with a true partnership as opposed to a federal government procurement was finally released but with an exceptionally short fuse. Further, it was so different from the draft RFP that potential bidders had to start over from the beginning to review this new RFP and digest its many sections and pages. Questions were submitted almost immediately but answers did not start coming until after the February due date. Then many of the questions were not answered in such a way as to mitigate the issues that had been identified. Yes, there have been some changes to the RFP and some of the sections that conflicted with each other have been reconciled, but there are still three hundred questions in the FirstNet hopper waiting to be answered. Meanwhile the clock is ticking. So the RFP responses are now due on May 13, 2016, and FirstNet still plans to make the award during the fourth quarter of this year. I believe both dates are too soon.

This is not simply an RFP that says the vendor will provide so many widgets to the federal government for so many dollars, it is an RFP for a partner that will take on substantial financial risk to hopefully experience a return on investment at some future time. Some of the terms and conditions seem onerous to me and several teams of potential bidders have dropped out of the process even before their questions were answered. The shame of this is that if the responses to the first questions had been provided sooner, perhaps some groups that have disbanded their teams would still be in the hunt. To design, build, and operate a new nationwide broadband network on spectrum that is unused except for some existing Public Safety LMR systems that will be moved is an enormous task even for existing commercial network operators. The timelines do not take into account many issues such as local permitting processes and many others over which a vendor has no control. Ask any of the commercial network operators if they actually meet their yearly goal for new cell sites. Those I talk to miss their targets year after year by 30 percent or more because of permitting issues. During one network operator’s LTE build in San Francisco, using rented tower space from a nationwide tower provider it was already using, new permits were required for each and every site, delaying its LTE launch by months. Yet only 24 months after the contract is signed, the RFP winner must have 50 percent of its predicted Public Safety users up and running. I don’t understand why the extension was for only two weeks.

FirstNet’s reasoning was worded this way, “Due to the critical schedule for award, the Government is extending the submission of proposals due date for two additional weeks.” Which leads me to ask the question, “According to whom is there a ‘critical schedule for the award’”? Nothing in the law states that an award must be made by the end of 2016. The best RFP responses will be reviewed in detail by, I am told, FirstNet, federal government folks, subject matter experts, and hopefully representatives of the Public Safety community. The final contract will not be what is submitted in the RFP but rather the result of numerous discussions, back and forth negotiations, and then finally an understanding between the potential partner and FirstNet and/or whoever will actually administer the contract. Once that is done, I have to assume the contract will be drawn up and reviewed again by everyone including a ton of attorneys on both sides. Changes to the language will be discussed and agreed upon and then there will be a final contract. I will be amazed if all of this is done in the allotted time and the contract is signed, sealed, and delivered within 2016. Thus another thirty or sixty days extension for the RFP responses should not be an issue. What am I missing here? The more time that is allotted for RFP responses, the better the responses and perhaps more responses there will be. I have to wonder if the “critical schedule” has more to do with the November elections than with FirstNet. It seems to me that an RFP two years in the making that will require the winning bidder to expend $billions before ever seeing a return on its investment is worthy of more than sixteen or eighteen weeks of time for bidders to respond. Andrew M. Seybold
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