FirstNet was born more than five years ago with the passage of the Middle Class Tax Relief And Job Creation Act of 2012 (“Act”). As we wait for the conclusion of a court challenge by Rivada Mercury to the federal government’s procedures in selecting FirstNet’s partner to build, operate and maintain the nationwide public safety broadband network, one wonders if there is a better way forward. Does FirstNet really need the Federal Acquisition Regulation (“FAR”) procedures to select its partner?
FAR contains the uniform policies and procedures for acquisitions by agencies and departments of the federal government. For many, it is a lengthy, complex and bewildering maze of requirements. For a single-purpose, long-term service provider relationship, the question is whether FirstNet would be better off without the FAR? The FirstNet enabling legislation simply requires FirstNet to issue Request for Proposals (“RFP”) for selection of a vendor to construct and operate the network that are “open, transparent and competitive.” There is nothing in the legislation that requires FirstNet to use FAR procedures to select a vendor.
FirstNet is an “independent authority” within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (“NTIA”) with an urgent public safety and national security mission. Despite not being an “executive agency” explicitly subject to the FAR, FirstNet decided early on to subject itself to the rigorous hurdles required by FAR. FirstNet “assumed” application of the FAR because it was “not expressly excluded from application of the Federal Acquisition Regulation.”
Under FAR, FirstNet had expected that a winning bidder for building out the network would be selected by November 1, 2016. However, as often happens in the FAR process, a court challenge was instituted by a disappointed bidder. The dispute could end soon and FirstNet will be able to go forward with its selected winner – AT&T by all public accounts. But what happens if the Court finds that FirstNet did not follow FAR requirements in the selection process? What happens if there are further court appeals leading to endless delay? Delay, delay and more delay is not in the best interest of the nation as FirstNet waits to fulfill its statutory mandate.
At what point should FirstNet even consider turning away from the FAR? FirstNet has gone so far down this road that it may be difficult at this time to forge a better path to a speedy and fruitful result. Nevertheless, FirstNet is not obligated to follow FAR procedures and it is free to craft its own guidelines for selection of a partner subject only to the “open, transparent and competitive” standard of the Act. There is nothing in the legislation that prevents FirstNet’s procedural guidelines from being simple, transparent and straightforward.
When it was first created, many had hoped FirstNet would act like a quasi-private entity with the ability to move swiftly, unburdened by bureaucratic quicksand. Unfortunately, as those who have followed FirstNet’s early history are well aware, that has not been the case. Perhaps out of necessity FirstNet will need to find a new way to “do business.” Just perhaps, the time is soon coming when FirstNet will find it best to sit at the negotiating table much like a private entity and negotiate a deal that is in the best interest of the country, without the weight of the FAR on its shoulders. While at the outset, FAR may have been considered a “safe” way forward, as demonstrated by the pending court challenge it is not necessarily the “best way” for FirstNet.