The prize for the most wasteful post-9/11 initiative arguably should go to FirstNet—a whole new agency set up to provide a telecommunications system exclusively for firefighters, police, and other first responders. They would communicate on bandwidth worth billions of dollars in the commercial market but now reserved by the Federal Communications Commission for FirstNet.
FirstNet is in such disarray that 15 years after the problem it is supposed to solve was identified, it is years from completion—and it may never get completed at all. According to the GAO, estimates of its cost range from $12 billion to $47 billion, even as advances in digital technology seem to have eliminated the need to spend any of it.
FirstNet, which has received scant press attention, was established in 2012 and funded with an initial $7 billion. A classic congressional compromise made it a quasi-independent unit of the Department of Commerce. That was supposed to give it the heft and authority of the federal government but the agility and culture of a private-sector start-up. In fact, the reverse dynamics seem to have taken over from the beginning.
It took FirstNet two years just to recruit a skeleton staff, only to be hit by an inspector general’s report that found potential conflicts of interest and problems with the awarding of initial consulting contracts. It then took another two years to issue a request for proposal (RFP) asking contractors to bid on the work to build and operate the system.