National Telecommunications & Information Administration
chief Larry Strickling found himself defending the agency's decision last week
to put a partial hold on seven broadband public safety network projects,
including ones funded through broadband grants.
At a House Communications Subcommittee Hearing on NTIA's and
the Rural Utilities Service broadband grants under the Farm Bill and Recovery
Act, Strickling was hit with questions from Republican legislators from states --
Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas -- whose projects had gotten the word to stand
down, at least until NTIA vets them against plans for a national interoperable
broadband public safety network, now being dubbed FirstNet, which NTIA is
The seven projects began a couple of years ago, but Congress
earlier this year approved spectrum incentive auction legislation, part of
whose proceeds will go to funding that national network. Given that the oversight
board for that effort will not meet until August, and the FCC is not coming out
with baseline interoperable standards for a few more weeks yet, Strickling said
he did not want to continue spending $380 million in taxpayer dollars for state
efforts that might be superseded by FirstNet.
When pressed, he said that NTIA would vet those works in
progress against the FCC interoperability standards, but that even that would
not necessarily be a green light to proceed. He said he thought it would be a
waste of taxpayer money to spend those millions on the chance that it will be
interoperable with the system FirstNet ultimately comes up with.
Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) asked whether, since the
Mississippi net had almost been built, and had cost $70 million, NTIA should
just let it proceed and patch it in later to the national net if necessary,
rather than make it wait a couple of years. Strickling said that only about
$22 million had been spent, that not all the equipment had been installed, but
that if it were the case that it were sufficiently built out, it might make
sense to let it proceed and perhaps learn from it.
But Strickling said not to delay work on those seven
projects would be to potentially duplicate the interoperability problems with
individual networks, which is one of the reasons the national network is being