Broadband emergency network plans come unplugged

Ethics questions could derail a $50 million grant that would pay for innovative broadband technologies to link emergency responders around the Bay Area.

In August, the federal government awarded the $50 million grant to the Bay Area to embark on a new broadband communications system — the most cutting-edge technology for public safety in the event of major disasters.

The system, dubbed BayWEB, is a public-private partnership between Bay Area public safety agencies and Motorola, which is contributing 25 percent of the cost for the system.

San Jose and Santa Clara County officials, which are recipients of the grant along with San Francisco and San Mateo County, are alleging that the Bay Area Urban Area Security Initiative did not conduct a transparent and ethical process when awarding the grant to Motorola as the vendor for the new broadband system. The government group was created as a regional approach to the prevention, protection, response and recovery efforts associated with terrorism and disasters.

While San Francisco officials are jumping at the opportunity, San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed and Santa Clara County Executive Jeff Smith have asked the federal government to suspend the grant until a fair and transparent process is conducted.

The two officials have exchanged letters with executives from the Bay Area UASI as well as the U.S. Department of Commerce, which told The San Francisco Examiner it was moving ahead on the broadband project.

Reed and Smith say the Motorola contract is being shoved down the throats of Bay Area cities and counties; the jurisdictions represented never voted on a contract with Motorola, which is a requirement of the MOU, according to Reed’s office.

Reed says he has been unsuccessful in trying to get documents that provide details of the contract, such as how much cities would have to pay for equipment of if they are on the hook for subscription fees with Motorola. Reed filed a Freedom of Information Act request last week.

“At a time when our budgets are falling apart we want to make sure we are not embarking in a program blindingly without knowing the future impacts are to our general fund,” Smith said.

City Attorney Dennis Herrera said he was “looking into the concerns.”

In response to the letters, Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information for the U.S. Department of Commerce Lawrence E. Strickling said the grant was awarded with the endorsement of all jurisdictions involved.

Tony Winnicker, a spokesman for Mayor Gavin Newsom, said they have been in touch with Reed’s Office, trying to understand his concerns, yet they do not want anything to delay this much-anticipated grant.

esherbert@sfexaminer.com

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