The Obama administration is urgently trying to stave off a $154.6 million disaster as a federally funded emergency communications plan neared collapse last week in America’s second largest city. This is the largest project of its kind ever attempted, and the model for a nationwide network with a future now clouded in doubt.
U.S. Commerce Department officials and Motorola Solutions executives repeatedly phoned and emailed key government officials across the Los Angeles basin in a desperate bid to salvage a regional government entity called Los Angeles Regional Interoperable Communications System, or, as is known in bureaucratese, “LA-RICS.”
Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker personally phoned L.A. mayor Eric Garcetti regarding LA-RICS. Pritzker’s spokesman declined to comment on the substance of the call.
“We have been furiously working on a corrective action plan,” LA-RICS executive director Patrick Mallon said. “We’ve had daily conversations with top [federal] officials, who are doing everything they can to assure LA-RICS’ success. I have also spoken with Motorola Solutions vice president Debora Courtright,” he said.
The federal government gave LA-RICS until April 13 to submit a revised plan that is acceptable to the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration as well as the city and county of Los Angeles. The NTIA had ordered a halt on all construction April 2.
Within hours of NTIA’s April 2 announcement, Motorola Solutions’ stock fell $4 to $62.50 and has yet to recover. Motorola Solutions, the nation’s largest seller of first-responder communications gear, hoped the L.A. project would be a showcase of its abilities – and now its future has been thrown into doubt.
The Commerce Department hopes to avoid a political catastrophe and congressional accusations that taxpayer dollars were wasted, with millions of dollars in purchased equipment warehoused on a project that may never be completed.
The Obama administration’s 2009 “stimulus” bill created NTIA’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program with $4.7 billion to fund “shovel ready” broadband projects. This spurred creation of the LA-RICS project.
The “Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012” added another layer of federal complexity, the “First Responder Network Authority” – “FirstNet” – within NTIA. FirstNet is authorized to spend as much as $7 billion to create a nationwide emergency communications network. Total cost for the system over the first decade could be as much as $47 billion, according to the federal Government Accountability Office.
LA-RICS was originally intended to serve some 34,000 police, fire and other emergency responders in 88 municipalities covering 4,084 square miles in the greater Los Angeles area. Once it was operational, police, fire and other emergency personnel across multiple jurisdictions would be able to talk directly with each other and share data, from building blueprints to health care records, in real time.
The project ran into trouble almost immediately. Six years and tens of millions of dollars were squandered as police and fire unions battled city and county officials, and rival corporations sued to overturn government contracts.
The many problems encountered cast doubt on FirstNet projects nationwide. “I am apprehensive for the future of the LA-RICS LTE [broadband] project and what it portends for the future of FirstNet,” said Bill Schrier, Seattle’s former chief technology officer and currently a FirstNet state contact.
LA-RICS is supervised by a board of directors called the Joint Powers Authority. Over the past year, 13 cities have dropped off the JPA. Then, in the last two weeks, two of the biggest players, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and the Los Angeles City Council, both voted to halt the project – exhausted by lawsuits, labor disputes, environmental fights, public protests and layers of federal regulations that they say are both contradictory and ever-changing. The county voted for a two-week hold on construction. The City Council cited rising costs, lengthening delays, and growing withdrawals of other cities when it unanimously voted to halt all construction within the city limits. In their motion, city officials cited a virtually insurmountable laundry list of preconditions before they would consider rejoining the JPA.
LA-RICS initially combined two types of emergency communications: traditional land mobile radio for voice communications as well as broadband for data. Motorola won the voice contract, worth over $280 million, in 2013, and then won the $154.6 million data grant in March 2014.
Motorola has many hoops to jump through to complete work as scheduled. “Of 177 cell towers planned, only 15 have been completed as of April 2. Another 42 are in the works,” LA-RICS executive director Mallon said. “Some of these [were] sites objected to by firefighters and police. Construction has halted and disputed sites may need to be permanently decommissioned. The remaining 120 have yet to obtain construction permits.”
The new, scaled down plan proposes only 83 sites – less than half the 177 hoped for, which were also a reduction from 232 initially planned –and excludes those disputed by the county and city. “The plan will augment limited fixed sites with ‘Cells on Wheels’,” Mallon said. These trailer-mounted units are supposed to provide temporary coverage while more permanent sites are identified.
The construction grants are conditioned upon strict timelines that cannot be altered without an act of Congress. The current deadline: September 30. “NTIA has made it very clear that they do not have within their discretion to extend the grant performance period,” Mallon said. “The Board of Supervisors will be in Washington, D.C., for meetings with NTIA and the California congressional delegation on April 21. I understand that time to allow further build out of the LA-RICS LTE system will be discussed,” he said.
LA-RICS has been plagued by delays, controversies and court challenges since its launch. A $600 million contract was originally awarded to Raytheon in 2011 for both the LMR and LTE components. Assisted by former LAPD Chief Bill Bratton and others, Motorola challenged the contract on a technicality and a state court overturned it. Bratton had served on the LA-RICS supervisory board before joining Motorola.
Motorola’s courtroom and lobbying maneuvers eventually exhausted rival Raytheon, which ceased bidding. Now Motorola had the market to itself, but problems multiplied.
The “Not In My Backyard” phenomenon – well known to Los Angeles residents – contributed to the LA-RICS quandary. The L.A. County firefighter’s union claimed that siting LTE antennas on cell towers near fire stations posed a health hazard to firefighters living and working there. Some citizens groups protested, echoing the complaints of the unions that the perception of a health hazard would shrink property values.
Dick Mirgon, past president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials said that the firefighters were wrong about safety. He said that energy emanating from cell towers used for projects is less than that for handheld radios, which firefighters carry with them, or microwave ovens, which are in every firehouse.
Significantly, L.A. County Fire Chief Daryl Osby disagreed with his union on the issue. “Along with the sheriff, if I thought that this posed a significant health concern to the firefighters, I would raise that concern to the board and to the citizens and halt the project,” he said in testimony before the board.
The firefighters union is currently in the midst of hardball contract negotiations. The firefighters may be holding the LA-RICS project hostage for a better deal.
Responding to pressure from firefighters and the public, L.A. County supervisors voted unanimously to suspend the project temporarily. The city of Los Angeles initially declared its police and fire stations off limits for LA-RICS equipment on its cell towers, but has since agreed to LTE cell sites at 19 police stations.
Motorola spokesman Steve Gorecki refused to comment directly, pointing a reporter to the company’s official statement: “Motorola Solutions believes the LA-RICS project represents a tremendous advancement in public safety communications for first responders. … We are committed to continue working with LA-RICS and other stakeholders on this unprecedented opportunity.”
The problems with LA-RICS illustrate the challenges implicit in large, complex, expensive projects centrally planned from Washington, D.C.
James Simpson is an investigative reporter for the American Media Institute.