U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet, today led a hearing titled “An Evaluation of FirstNet’s Progress,” to examine the efforts the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) and AT&T have made deploying a nationwide public safety broadband network. During the hearing, Thune questioned experts, including Pennington County Captain Tony Harrison, on ways FirstNet can strengthen its oversight of AT&T to enhance user satisfaction.
Thune’s full remarks (as prepared for delivery):
“Good morning and welcome to today’s subcommittee hearing reviewing the progress the First Responder Network Authority—also known as FirstNet—has made in deploying a nationwide, public safety broadband network.
“Following several communications failures during national emergencies, Congress recognized the need for a reliable communications network for public safety officials, which led to the creation of FirstNet under the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012.
“In 2017, FirstNet, which acts as an independent authority under the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, awarded AT&T a contract to build out, operate, and maintain the network.
“Since that time, this Committee has held several oversight hearings to ensure FirstNet, in partnership with AT&T, is meeting its statutory requirements to deploy the network, and I look forward to continuing those efforts today.
“Having reliable communications services for our country’s emergency personnel is critical—something the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted.
“I know we have folks on the panel today who, along with many medical professionals and first responders, have played a part in the nation’s coronavirus response.
“FirstNet, along with other carriers that support our medical professionals and first responders, enables those individuals to connect with Americans in need.
“Public safety officials face numerous challenges accessing reliable services and those challenges are even greater for the more rural areas throughout the country.
“In my home state of South Dakota, the diverse terrain in the Black Hills region, an area that attracts millions of visitors every year, makes communication even more difficult.
“Many Americans and international visitors alike escape to the Black Hills to unplug or disconnect from technology.
“However, when an emergency occurs, reliable communications and access to public safety personnel, even in these beautiful, remote places, is a top priority.
“Expanding geographical coverage is critical to addressing the region’s unique challenges and making it a safer place for everyone to enjoy.
“We must ensure our public safety officials have the tools they need to best serve our communities
“To that end, I do appreciate FirstNet and AT&T’s commitment to enhancing coverage in rural areas.
“Building an interoperable, nationwide public safety network is not without its challenges and FirstNet with AT&T is only in its third year of a 25-year contract.
“Earlier this year, the Government Accountability Office identified several areas in which FirstNet could strengthen its oversight of AT&T.
“One of the areas mentioned was end-user engagement.
“GAO’s report found that AT&T does not collect enough robust data around the satisfaction of the end-user: the very groups who will at the end of the day be depending upon the FirstNet system to do their jobs.
“I share GAO’s view that FirstNet’s lack of formal insight into end-users’ satisfaction could ultimately affect the long-term success of the program.
“Today, I look forward to hearing how FirstNet and AT&T have worked to address this and other concerns raised by GAO.
“We have an excellent panel before us today with representatives from FirstNet and AT&T as well as individuals who utilize the FirstNet network every day.
“Joining us is Mr. Ed Parkinson, who serves as the Executive Director of FirstNet, Mr. Jason Porter from AT&T, Captain Tony Harrison from the Sheriff’s office of Pennington County, South Dakota, and Ms. Karima Holmes, director of the Office of Unified Communications for the District of Columbia.
“Thank you for being here.
“I now recognize Ranking Member Schatz for any opening remarks he may have.”