Five members of Verizon’s First Responder Advisory Council are calling attention to a report that is critical of FirstNet’s relationship with AT&T in terms of billions of dollars in investments.

The report, which was published in November 2022, was based on the findings of auditors at the office of the Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Commerce.

FirstNet is owned by the FirstNet Authority. But AT&T is the primary contractor, deploying and managing the network.

“Overall, we found that FirstNet Authority has not established a sound process for selecting reinvestment opportunities. FirstNet Authority could not demonstrate that these investment opportunities were the most appropriate or efficient use of resources,” stated the report.

Most damning was that the inspector general wrote, “FirstNet Authority relied on information from AT&T that appeared to influence the process of identifying and selecting reinvestment opportunities.”

The inspector general said it was making recommendations that could put more than $296 million in funds for FirstNet to better use and “ensure future multi-billion-dollar reinvestments are supported and justified and reflect public safety priorities.”

The report indicated that AT&T made upgrades to its network for 5G, which were partly funded by FirstNet monies, without first getting final approvals from the Department of Commerce.

AT&T has touted the fact that while it was deploying equipment for FirstNet, it simultaneously upgraded many of its towers with 5G equipment. This “one-touch” approach saved AT&T a lot of money.

But the inspector general’s report said FirstNet relied too much on AT&T for its investment decisions. The report said that FirstNet briefing slides contained information “copied directly from AT&T slides regarding the proposed phased approach to upgrading to 5G.”

FirstNet’s defense

On October 7, 2022, Lisa Casias, acting executive director of FirstNet Authority, responded to the auditor’s draft report. She said the audit did not appear to take into account actions FirstNet had taken such as collaborating with NTIA and the Office of Acquisition Management.

Casias also said the public-private relationship between FirstNet and AT&T “requires joint planning and coordination.”

Also on October 7, 2022, Alan Davidson, who heads the NTIA, which is a part of the Department of Commerce, sent a response to the auditor’s draft report. Although he accepted many of the auditor’s recommendations for future investments in FirstNet, he also defended FirstNet’s work with AT&T.

Davidson wrote, “Given the long-term relationship established by the contract with AT&T and building on the government’s substantial initial core and radio access network investments, the FirstNet Authority and AT&T must collaborate closely on foundational investments such as 5G network upgrades.”

Verizon’s incentive to ding FirstNet

FirstNet has been a boon for AT&T. Since the FirstNet Authority awarded the 25-year contract to AT&T in 2017, the emergency service network has garnered more than 4.4 million device connections and over 24,000 public safety organization subscribers as of January.

AT&T is in direct competition with Verizon’s Frontline for emergency responder services. The five members of Verizon’s advisory council who are calling attention to the Commerce Department report are William Bratton, Karen Tandy, Jerome Hauer, Salvatore Cassano and Charles Ramsey. The advisors are  former Homeland Security Commissioners, law enforcement officers and fire service officials.

The Verizon advisors, in an open letter to the Department of Commerce, wrote, “The report highlights the $6.5 billion of federal funds that have already been provided to AT&T. The report’s assessment that these decisions appear to be influenced by FirstNet’s contractor, AT&T, is alarming – and underscores why we expressed our concern to the FCC back in October about the degree of control that FirstNet has abdicated and transferred to AT&T.”

FirstNet/AT&T management

There have been some management changes at AT&T related to FirstNet.

In October, AT&T named Jim Bugel as the new president of its FirstNet program and Zee Hussain as AT&T’s public-sector president. Both those roles had previously been held by Jason Porter, who is now serving as SVP of Supply Chain at AT&T.

The FirstNet Authority, itself, has been without a permanent CEO since May of 2021. Lisa Casias has been filling the position as acting CEO. But a new FirstNet leader is expected to start by the end of March.

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