Congressional watchdog urges lawmakers to act to save FirstNet

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A new report from the Government Accountability Office urged members of Congress this week to find a permanent home for FirstNet, the country’s dedicated public safety broadband network, before the statute for its parent organization runs out in 2027.

More than 18,500 public safety agencies throughout the country have signed on to use FirstNet as their mobile internet provider since 2018, when AT&T began building out the network. While AT&T is in charge of maintaining and operating the network through 2042, thanks to a 25-year contract it signed with the federal government in 2017, FirstNet’s governing body — the First Responder Network Authority, or FirstNet Authority — is only scheduled to oversee the network contract, including collecting fees from AT&T, until its authorization runs out in 2027.

“Without any legislative action, network operations and improvements would be at risk and could result in the loss of service for public safety users,” the GAO report read.

The authority is currently an independent agency within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which itself is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

One option the GAO recommended to lawmakers is that they could keep the FirstNet Authority in its current home past 2027 by simply reauthorizing it, saving everyone involved time and money by re-upping the original statute that was agreed upon in 2012, when the network was conceived. But simple reauthorization could stifle the agency’s growth, some board members told GAO.

“FirstNet officials noted that they are required to follow NTIA’s standard-operating procedures in several areas, some of which, in their view, constrain FirstNet’s ability for independent decision-making in operational and planning issues,” the report read. “FirstNet officials and a Board member also commented that NTIA’s monitoring can be duplicative of the oversight duties of the FirstNet Board and can interfere with the Board’s technical expertise to govern FirstNet.”

The GAO also floated several other options, including placing the authority within a different federal agency or establishing FirstNet as an independent federal agency separate from other departments. The former idea garnered mixed reactions from FirstNet executives who would welcome getting out of NTIA’s shadow, while the latter would require them to come up with their own accountability, financial and legal services.

The GAO ultimately didn’t favor any specific path for Congress to take in ensuring FirstNet stays alive, though it did urge lawmakers to act soon.

“Congressional action on key statutory requirements and contract responsibilities is essential for network continuity and enhancement,” the report said.

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Department of Commerce, FirstNet, FirstNet Authority, NTIA
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