Millions in federal emergency communications funding lost, diverted
WASHINGTON — Four years ago, Commerce Department officials were touting their pilot grant program as a way to vault police, firefighters and other emergency responders into the age of high-speed broadband.
With seven grant awards, the department promised to show how public safety agencies could use new data-delivery networks to beam suspects’ images to cops on the beat or life-saving video instructions to medics hunched over disaster victims.
But now, the public safety broadband communication program is in turmoil — and tens of millions of federal grant dollars have been lost or diverted to other purposes while a new agency sets out to build a nationwide broadband network. Mississippi officials have even been asked to retrieve equipment for their aborted project from scores of transmission towers.
More than two-thirds of the program’s $382 million in public safety grant money went to pilot projects won by Illinois-based Motorola Solutions Inc., which holds an estimated 80 percent share of the emergency two-way radio market. That’s ironic, because it was Motorola’s radio dominance that helped instigate the push toward a more competitive broadband market as the best way to build the new network.
Motorola won deals backed by grants from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to build the first metropolitan-wide public safety broadband system in the San Francisco Bay Area and the first statewide broadband network in Mississippi. This spring, it captured the biggest prize: a $175 million contract for a 230-tower network in Los Angeles County.
Yet Motorola won’t collect all of the money it expected after winning projects financed by the three largest grants. A $70 million grant to Mississippi and a controversial $50 million grant to Motorola for the San Francisco-area project have been scuttled. A $154 million grant to Los Angeles County is in jeopardy.
Federal government delays also prevented a fourth grant recipient, the city of Charlotte, N.C., from deploying a new public-safety data network in time for the 2012 Democratic National Convention. The city’s remaining $8.8 million in grant money is being used to bolster an existing system.
What has happened in the Commerce Department program, nearly 13 years after radio failures left more than 100 New York firefighters trapped in an imploding World Trade Center tower on Sept. 11, 2001, is emblematic of the continuing struggles of local, state and federal agencies to align money and policies behind seamless emergency communications networks.
It also reflects tensions over Motorola’s push to gain inroads to the broadband world — technology that threatens to eventually add reliable voice communications and supplant the company’s decades-old market for push-to-talk radios.
Motorola’s lobbyists were instrumental in persuading Congress to open the door for the public-safety broadband grants, said an official of the Department of Homeland Security who was not authorized to speak for the record.
Motorola executives “see that their radio market is going to go away, so they clearly want to corner the market on existing (broadband) grants,” said Bill Schreier, a former chief technology officer for the city of Seattle who now works for Washington state. “If I was a company in their situation, I’d be using every possible method to try and corner that market.”
In a series of articles published in March, McClatchy detailed an array of tactics used by Motorola, including embedding proprietary features in its equipment so it couldn’t interact with non-Motorola equipment, to elbow out competitors and prolong decades of dominance over the two-way radio market.
By embedding proprietary features, Motorola put its state and local customers in the position of having to upgrade with its equipment or scrap their entire systems to shift to another vendor, locking in relationships for decades.
Motorola didn’t entirely abandon these tactics in seizing on the National Telecommunications and Information Administration program to defend against the threat broadband poses to its radio franchise.
In both San Francisco’s and Mississippi’s projects, Motorola incorporated proprietary features in its handsets so they couldn’t interact with non-Motorola equipment, said several people who lacked authorization to speak publicly. Federal officials interceded and barred use of those devices, they said. After those grants were ended, they said, Motorola relented and is not using the software in Los Angeles County.
A Motorola spokesman declined to comment about the company’s alleged use of proprietary software in broadband systems.
Declan Ganley, CEO of New York-based Rivada Networks Inc., alleged that Motorola executives, now seeing their radio market at risk, have sought to use the Commerce grants as “their own bailout program.”
“When your business model doesn’t work anymore, just hit the taxpayer. It’s easier than innovation,” said Ganley, whose firm contends it can save taxpayers billions of dollars by reselling public safety agencies’ excess broadband capacity to commercial users during quiet periods.
Motorola said in a statement that it “has worked cooperatively, appropriately and lawfully with officials at all levels of government in the pursuit of opportunities where our broadband communications solutions, based on recognized industry standards,” can innovatively meet public safety agencies’ needs.