Waiting and Watching: The November 1 goal set by FirstNet to announce the RFP winner has come and gone. However, the CEO stated before and since the first of November that progress is being made. Part of the issue is that while FirstNet is what should be considered a quasi-federal agency (since Congress dubbed it an “Independent Authority”), it has had to fight for that status. In the beginning FirstNet was too tightly controlled by the NTIA and only in the past two years has it been able to even appoint a CEO or president. The CEO is saying all of the right things including that FirstNet will not shortcut the FAR (Federal Acquisition Regulation) process.
It should be noted here that there are actually two contracting officers involved in this RFP process. One works for the U. S. Department of the Interior, which is also the source-selection authority (SSA) for FirstNet but then FirstNet has its own contracting officer on staff. The FirstNet contracting officer was the original U.S. Department of the Interior contracting officer and is now on the FirstNet payroll. It is not clear who will be making the final decision but I would think most of the negotiations are out of the comfort zone of any contracting officer because he/she should have to deal with network coverage, expansion, and perhaps many nitty gritty details that are of vital importance to the Public Safety community, though they might seem irrelevant to a contracting officer.
This is perhaps one of the most complex RFPs ever received by the government to review, assess, grade, and award. It is for a network that is being only mildly funded by the federal government while the bulk of the estimated $30 billion in funding will be contributed by the RFP partner. This is not about the low compliant bidder as most cut and dried RFPs are. Rather, this is about what is best for the Public Safety community. If a decision is made only on the basis that one vendor or another promises to fund FirstNet to much higher levels than the minimums indicated in the RFP, I believe Public Safety will lose because the main criteria became money paid to the government rather than the network itself.
FirstNet has been very quiet, as have the rest of the agencies that may have been involved in the RFP process. However, rumors are now starting to slip out from various corners within the federal structure. I am not going to repeat any of those rumors since many of them contradict each other and may, in fact, have been started by a hopeful RFP bidder to further its perceived chance of success. In any case, the lead container that has housed the FirstNet process is beginning to spring holes. I believe folks at FirstNet are being rigorous and hopefully anyone else involved in the selection process is letting FirstNet drive the discussions. I am afraid a decision based on anything other than meeting the needs of the Public Safety community today and 25 years from now will result in simply another federal failure.
Next week the Presidential and other elections will be behind us, and while the results could shape some of the future direction of FirstNet, it is hoped that politics will not be a factor in the RFP decision. As I look out at the landscape I have to wonder how much pressure is being put on those at FirstNet who are charged with the decision-making process by other federal agencies.
The real question in my mind is if FirstNet will announce the partner before a formal contract has been put into place. From my perspective, I am torn. I would rather know sooner who the winning partner will be, but I also would like the announcement to be made after all the i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed. I suspect it will not happen that way since I am sure more federal attorneys from various agencies will probably turn the actual contract document into something that won’t fit on a 2 or 3 terabyte disk! The last contract I received from a federal agency started out as a simple 4-page statement of work and ended up being several hundred pages of whereases. It would be so much simpler to say to the partner we want the best network you can possibly build for Public Safety, go do it!
As we wait for FirstNet, as there are more meetings on a state and city level, and as more of the Public Safety community becomes aware of what FirstNet is and what it will help accomplish, we are all in anguish waiting for the next step: the RFP partner announcement. However, it has to be made when the time is right and FirstNet is certain it has chosen the best possible partner for the Public Safety community.