Episode 36| Creating FirstNet: A Conversation with Oregon Congressman Greg Walden
Edward Parkinson, FirstNet Authority Chief Executive Officer
Congressman Greg Walden, Representative of Oregon’s 2nd District
Narrator: You're listening to Public Safety First, a podcast to help you learn about the First Responder Network Authority and how you can be part of the future of public safety technology.
And now, your host.
Ed Parkinson: Well, good afternoon and thank you so much for joining us today. I’m Ed Parkinson, the CEO of the First Responder Network Authority. It’s a privilege to be here today and to be joined by one of the architects of the legislation. Congressman Greg Walden has been a huge supporter of public safety over the years, and it’s safe to say that FirstNet wouldn’t exist without him. And so, with that, Congressman, welcome to the podcast. It’s a privilege to have you here.
Congressman Greg Walden: Well, Ed, it’s really nice to join you, and thanks for your leadership of such an important organization. So, I’m glad to be with you.
Ed Parkinson: Thanks so much. Well, we’ll just dive straight in, Congressman, if that’s alright with you. As I mentioned before, you’ve just been a huge advocate of public safety over your time in Congress. I feel very lucky in that I was a Hill alumni in the House, and, you know, was one of the staffers who was working on the FirstNet legislation back in the day. And so, it’s just one of those significant pieces of public safety legislation that you’ve been working on. Could you maybe talk a little bit about why you pushed for the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network for first responders?
Congressman Greg Walden: Yeah, let me talk about that. First of all, it was one of the things that had not been done that was recommended by the 9/11 Commission. So, there weren’t many loose ends from the 9/11 Commission report, but this was one of them, and it called for a interoperable broadband public safety network, because we all know how tragic the stories were of first responders who came from outside of Manhattan to help, and they couldn’t communicate, they were on different channels during the response, and I’m sure lives were lost as a result. And so, we launched the campaign to get public safety its own dedicated network. Now, part of my background is in the radio broadcast business. I grew up in it. My father was a small market radio broadcaster, so I grew up around first responders as we’d go out and cover the accidents and the fires and the mishaps and the crime beat in small market radio, and my wife and I were in the business for two decades, as well. And so, I have great affection for what first responders do. I would like to think that I have some understanding of that, having participated on the sidelines but watched them in action, whether that was in search and rescue or fires or other tragedies. And it was clear – we needed to close this gap in communication, and, in the end, I was in a position to do it as I had just taken over as chairman of the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, and this had been lingering for many years, and I said, “We’re going to make this a priority, and we’re going to get it done.”
Ed Parkinson: Well, I can imagine, especially representing the Second District, which is very rural, and subject to quite vicious wildfires over the years, and you’ve been in office for a good chunk of time. You’ve got a lot of experience at working firsthand, directly with public safety and responding in these rural communities. I’m sure you could talk a little bit, too, about how you’ve seen the evolution of technology moving from back in the day when there were no, not even radios in your district, to now where we see FirstNet and public safety broadband at the forefront of how folks are responding to incidents like wildfires.
Congressman Greg Walden: Yeah, no, no it’s true, Ed. My district, just for perspective, would stretch from the Atlantic Ocean to Ohio – that’s how big eastern Oregon is. And so, we’ve got all the problem areas for communication networks. We have really remote mountainous areas, we have some of the deepest canyons in the country. And, as a result, you also don’t have broadband out in a lot of those areas, so they’re very hard to reach with reliable communications technologies. And again, just going back to my old radio days, I’ve installed Motorola gear in trunks and everything else as a – our radio station vehicles, and, you know, I know a little bit about signal propagation characteristics and things of that nature. And so, it, to me, it was a no brainer that we had to do better, we had to fund it, we had to come up with something that worked, so that if a first responder from somewhere in Idaho showed up in a conflagration in, somewhere in Oregon, they can talk to each other, or somebody from New Jersey going to Manhattan, they could communicate.
There’s another piece of this, too, that’s really important. We wanted to set this up in a public-private partnership that would allow for the innovation that had occurred outside of the public safety system to occur. And by that I mean, if you have a broadband interoperable network, a common platform if you will, then all these bright, I’ll say kids, in Silicon Valley can develop apps that could work on these devices, and really, perpetually modernize the communications capabilities for our first responders. So, that was another piece of this that we thought was really important, and that’s why the D-block mattered, as well.
Ed Parkinson: Yeah, the power of the public-private partnership, I think, is one of the key aspects of this. I think you’ll recall when Sam Ginn, our first chair of the Board, and –
Congressman Greg Walden: Yep.
Ed Parkinson: –Sue Swenson came up to testify, along with Mike Poth and T.J. Kennedy. You know, we’ve had a lot of discussion of what the initial idea of how the partnership could look like, but what was key and what was central about that was this recapitalization model, where we knew that the seed money that Congress had given us, plus the power of the D-block spectrum comes together so that we would never have to come back to Congress. We would be able to build a self-sustaining, and frankly, a growth-creating environment, not just from a fiscal perspective, but as you alluded to, the application ecosystem, the device ecosystem. I think when you see –
Congressman Greg Walden: Right.
Ed Parkinson: – the numbers today, we’ve got over one hundred devices on the FirstNet system, we got well over one hundred applications. It really just, frankly, reinforces the vision that Congress had when putting the legislation together. It’s really powerful to see.
Congressman Greg Walden: Well, and it is. You know, I continued, when we were in the majority, to hold oversight hearings, as you referenced, because I wanted to make sure that we did our due diligence as Congress. I’ve always felt that the work begins after you pass a law to make sure that what you intended ends up getting done, and if there are problems, you go fix the problems, because, I know this will shock your listeners, but we don’t always get it right in Congress. And so, I’ve tried to stay in regular contact with the first responder community, and now through your organization and all to say – is it working for that frontline public servant who is trying to save lives, protect lives, protect their own life? Is it working or not? And what are the problems and how do we fix them. And so, I think over time we’ve done that. I wish we were doing more of it now, but I’m not the majority and can’t call the hearings, but, be that as it may, I think it’s moved in the right direction, and it’s really essential that we get this right and set it up so that it can be sustaining, as you said, and evolving always to the best technology. I wanted to make sure that we didn’t create a system that was a government-legislated piece of equipment that gets locked in for a generation, and, you know, only one or two manufacturers could make, and there you go, now you’re hostage to your supplier, and I didn’t want that. I wanted something that was much more diverse, much more vibrant, much more able to grow and change and adapt as the technology changes and as the needs change. I think we got there.
Ed Parkinson: Well, let’s pull the thread a bit more on that evolution of technology and that technology changes. Here we sit today on the cusp of 5G, and we obviously want the United States to be at the cutting edge in the commercial space. You know, at FirstNet, we talk about being fast followers. We’re going to be ready for 5G. Our public safety users are going to be at the forefront of public safety 5G broadband, and it’s really exciting to see that coming. But, from your perspective, since, you know, you’re very close at this and in multiple areas, obviously not just public safety but certainly in the commercial front, what are your thoughts on 5G deployment, and how do you see it potentially creating synergies with public safety broadband?
Congressman Greg Walden: That’s a really good question, as well, Ed. So, a couple of things. First of all, we need to make sure there are telecommunications networks – commercial, FirstNet, all of them – are resilient, and are secure, and are not infected with foreign technology that could result in really bad things happening at crucial times. And so, we’re working to rip and replace equipment that’s in the traditional networks and get some of it out that we believe poses a threat to our own security – that would be the Huawei equipment. Second, we need to win this race on 5G, and that’s why we’ve worked so hard to get spectrum into the market, and to move forward with removing roadblocks to get 5G built out. I do think that part of the effort has to look at creating platforms that can evolve rapidly to, we’ll call it “6G,” but the next technology after 5G. You know, you’re always looking out. We have to get to the point where, like the O-RANs system and all, that those things are there, people have access, can compete, and that we can stay ahead of our competitor – our international competitors – who would love to dominate our telecommunication networks, our power networks, and, you know, I think that poses a threat that we shouldn’t allow in our country. So, 5G really matters, and it matters on the positive side of things. Look, you have 21 million Americans still not connected to high-speed internet, and so we still have to get fiber out, but also, 5G will allow up to one hundred times the throughput capacity of LTE networks, so now you can move a lot more data on mobile devices to more areas. But, we’ve got to get that mid-band spectrum out to really serve the rural areas, I’ll say, and we’re working to do that, as well. So, there’s, it’s an exciting time in the world of telecommunications, but getting these networks built out is really important, and then making sure that we don’t leave anybody behind is essential.
Ed Parkinson: Well, that’s huge, especially in rural communities. When we look across the rural communities in the United States, more often than not, they tend to be, unfortunately, left behind, to use your language there, Congressman, you know. One of the things that we’ve been really focused on here at FirstNet is looking at the space of telemedicine. Last year we signed an MOU –
Congressman Greg Walden: Yep.
Ed Parkinson: – with the University of Mississippi Medical Center, and, to really explore how can we bring the power of public safety broadband into rural communities, and that’s one aspect, I know, coming from a rural community yourself, thinking of first responders and doctors and telemedicine, telehealth capabilities, especially in this environment in which we’re operating right now – how are you seeing broadband touch doctors, nurses, hospitals, and especially as we evolve into that 5G environment?
Congressman Greg Walden: You know, I’m really excited about where we’re at. It’s, you know, in the course of this horrible virus disaster that we’ve been in, there are some bright, shining moments of better policy emerging, and one of those is in the area of telemedicine. And I’ve talked to the chairman of the FCC [Federal Communications Commission], Ajit Pai, I’ve talked to Secretary [Alex] Azar at HHS [Health and Human Services] and others, because, you know, they waived a lot of obstacles that have stood in the way of telemedicine, especially for seniors. As you know, Congress has said we’re going to pay for telemedicine for people on Medicare, because, frankly, in this COVID period, the last thing you wanted is a senior with some basic healthcare need, having to go in to a quick care emergency clinic or something where somebody’s sick with COVID is. And so, being able to do telemedicine in their home made sense in the COVID environment. My plea to those that are making policy in the administrative branch and we in Congress is let’s not put those barriers to better access to healthcare back in place when this is over. Instead, let’s go the other direction. We should be expanding access to telemedicine. It is smart, it is cheaper, it is safer, and it will minimize, I think, the spread of disease over time, because then you’re not having people in waiting rooms coughing and sputtering and sneezing on people who are just there for routine care. And, we’ve got to break down some other barriers like cross-state licensure of docs and things of that nature that prevent somebody that might be your home doctor talking to you while you’re in another state on vacation and sick. I mean, there’s just some stupid things left in the law that we need to just get smart about. And I think it will save money and improve healthcare outcomes, and, especially in districts like mine, that this again calls for the need, and I think FirstNet can help fill this, of expanded interactive broadband capabilities. And, certainly with the D-block spectrum – that’s a huge chunk of spectrum. There’s adequate spectrum. And then the next piece is just the buildout. And I know companies that are buying the spectrum to build out 5G have plans to build out into many of these unserved or underserved areas with 5G capabilities. So, if we can get that, I think there’s a marriage to be had here of good policy, great connectivity, and I think you end up saving money, frankly, in the long run.
Ed Parkinson: We don’t want to go past this time without giving a shout-out to those ham radio operators, W7EQI, isn’t that right?
Congressman Greg Walden: That’s right. That was, that’s my call now. It was my father’s. He got his ham ticket in 1934. I got mine sometime in high school or thereabouts and was WB7OCE, but I gave that up when my father passed away and took his classic call – W7 Echo Quebec India.
Ed Parkinson: There you go.
Congressman Greg Walden: So, in fact, when I announced that I’d been chosen to chair the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, I used Morse Code and tweeted it out, which confounded some and brought a slight smirk to the face of others, to marry an old technology with a new echnology, and so, I thought it was kind of fun to do.
Ed Parkinson: Well, again, I’m not going to make a crack about old age or anything like that. But, anything you’re going to miss now that you’re looking on to the next part of your career after the end of the year? Anything in particular around public safety? Broadband? I mean, you’ve got a dearth of experience – I’m sure there’s going to be a gaping hole when you move on, but what are some of the areas you’re going to miss about the Hill and public safety?
Congressman Greg Walden: Well, yeah, I’ve had a great run, and it’s the people, and it’s the ability to try and affect good public policy. I guarantee you I’m the only now former chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, or chairman of the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology that ever wired in an emergency alert system or two in a radio station. I did that in our stations. You know, I’ve wired in studios and I’ve worked on transmitters, and if it got too high voltage or too tough, I had a real engineer on standby, but, you know, it’s been a great run, and I’m so proud of the partnership we developed to get FirstNet in place and up and running in a positive way. I have such admiration for first responders in every category. They put their lives on the line to save the lives of others, to safeguard our communities, to rescue people. I mean, it’s every piece of first responder, and I think we made a difference. And in this world, you hope, when you look back, you made a positive difference, and I think jointly we did. We freed up spectrum, we made money for the taxpayers, we created FirstNet, we funded it, we made the spectrum available, and I think that made a difference for those who make such a difference in our lives.
Ed Parkinson: Yeah, I couldn’t agree with you more. I really think that FirstNet’s going to become a complete game changer. When you look at where we stand as an organization today, just over 1.3 million connections in a relatively short period of time, over 12,000 agencies from every state in the United States, it’s amazing to see the progress in a really short period of time. But, look, it’s 22 more years of the contract to go. I think in terms of legacy, this is going to be one of the best ones we have and we won’t let you down, Congressman. But hey, thank you so much for making the time today. I couldn’t thank you enough, and thanks again for everything you’ve done for public safety. It’s really an honor.
Congressman Greg Walden: Gee, it’s been a great joy to work with my friends in public safety and get the policy right, and I’ll do whatever I can, even out of office to be helpful.
Ed Parkinson: Alright. Well, thanks again, Congressman. Really appreciate the time today, and all the very best.
Congressman Greg Walden: Thank you.
Narrator: Thanks for listening today. We're excited to have you join our podcast community. Make sure to subscribe on iTunes, SoundCloud, and YouTube. You can learn more about the First Responder Network Authority at FirstNet.gov and learn about FirstNet products and services at FirstNet.com.