FirstNet on track, but could use more transparency, GAO says

Greater communication among stakeholders and a more comprehensive master schedule would improve FirstNet’s oversight of the massive public safety broadband contract and boost the confidence of its end users, the Government Accountability Office found.

AT&T is on track to meet the build-out schedule for FirstNet, the nationwide wireless public-safety broadband network, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

The Commerce Department's First Responder Network (FirstNet) awarded the 25-year contract to AT&T in 2017 to deploy, operate and maintain the network and is tasked with tracking progress and performance of the massive contract.

AT&T met the March 2019 nationwide adoption milestones to provide at least 20% of the total expected Band 14 coverage in both non-rural and rural areas, GAO said, but the deployment is more advanced in some states than others – ranging from 20% complete in one state and 100% finished in others. Still, coverage is expanding, and AT&T is expected to meet the March 2020 coverage milestone ahead of time.

FirstNet has a variety of ways to oversee deployment of the network and monitor contract performance that align with key federal contract-oversight practices: tracking expected costs, schedules and outcomes with milestone reviews; ensuring compliance with quality assurance requirements of products and services; identifying and closing issues needing corrective action; and engaging with end users and stakeholders to gauge performance.

However, GAO found three weaknesses that it said limits the effectiveness of FirstNet's oversight: lack of a reliable master schedule; communication with state, local and tribal stakeholders regarding contract oversight; and meaningful information on end-user satisfaction with network coverage, quality of services and features of FirstNet-ready devices.

"The success of the network depends not only on AT&T’s contract execution and FirstNet’s oversight but also on the confidence of the end users, the nation’s first responders." GAO wrote.

To address the weaknesses it found, GAO made four recommendations for FirstNet's CEO:

  • Ensure that the integrated master schedule for the program is developed and maintained in accordance with GAO best practices.
  • Identify and periodically communicate additional information about the program with public-safety stakeholders.
  • Share relevant portions of the accepted state-specific commitment reports with the states
  • Identify end-users satisfaction metrics to gauge performance quality, including the effect of the FirstNet network and products on public-safety operations.

FirstNet agreed with all the recommendations and said it would continue to find ways to improve transparency with and feedback from its stakeholders, in addition to refining the integrated master schedule.

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