Emergency U.S. Radio Plan Ignoring Concerns of Suppliers

Officials preparing to spend $7 billion to build a U.S. emergency-services radio network aren’t listening to companies with expertise, according to executives who met yesterday to air complaints about the program.

The First Responder Network Authority, created by Congress last year to oversee the national network, hasn’t made clear how it plans to proceed, speakers said at a meeting in Washington convened by Textron Inc., which wants to manage construction, and Harris Corp., which may sell gear to the network.

“We are concerned that there has been something of a cone of silence dropped around the process,” said Brian Hendricks, global head of technology policy for telephone-equipment maker Nokia Siemens Networks.

Meetings are “hard to come by,” he said. “It leaves most of us with the sense that we’re sort of fumbling around in the dark for the light switch, and that is a concern.”

President Barack Obama’s administration in August appointed 12 members to the board that runs the authority, known as FirstNet. The chairman is Sam Ginn, a senior adviser to New York-based investment bank Greenhill & Co. and former chairman of Vodafone AirTouch Plc, now Vodafone Group Plc.

“Our immediate priority is to reach out to the public-safety community -- state, local governments and tribes -- to better understand their unique needs and challenges,” Jeffrey Johnson, a board member and retired Oregon fire chief, said in a statement.

Reaching Out

The board needs to focus on what users say before “reaching out to the vendor community,” Johnson said. Broader contacts with vendors will begin in the second quarter of this year, he said.

FirstNet was set up to develop a communication network to improve the ability of police, firefighters and other emergency workers to communicate with one another.

“It seems FirstNet has kind of shut themselves off,” said Donald Hairston, a senior vice president of Providence, Rhode Island-based Textron. “How do you build systems if you don’t talk to your users?”

Law enforcement officials don’t know what’s happening with the network, Tom Stone, a former police chief, said during yesterday’s meeting. Stone is executive director of the nonprofit FBI-Law Enforcement Executive Development Association in Malvern, Pennsylvania.

“They’ve not been asked for input,” Stone said. “There’s a big disconnect.”

Congress in February passed legislation calling for the Federal Communications Commission to sell some frequencies to wireless telephone carriers, with $7 billion from the proceeds to help pay for the nationwide emergency-services network.

The measure also allocated airwaves for the system, fulfilling a recommendation of the 9/11 Commission that investigated the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, when police and firefighters had trouble communicating by radio.

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