Alexandra Fernández Navarro is an Associate Member of the Puerto Rico Public Service Regulatory Board, with an extensive career in public service and telecommunications. She was appointed to the FirstNet Authority Board by the Secretary of Commerce in October 2021.
We sat down with Ms. Fernández Navarro to discuss the unique communications challenges U.S. territories face, how FirstNet supports territories, and her career in public service.
How did you become involved with FirstNet?
I was invited to a state and territory planning meeting for the launch of FirstNet in 2017 as a Puerto Rico government representative. I immediately understood the network's potential to solve essential emergency communications needs.
Little did I know that just a few months later, Hurricane Maria would strike Puerto Rico. FirstNet phones were given to several heads of government agencies to help with the initial response efforts. Since FirstNet was in its initial stage, capabilities were limited, but these capabilities were absolutely critical. The communication networks other than FirstNet were overwhelmed. This was the first time I saw the FirstNet network in action, and it solidified my belief that this was going to be essential for public safety.
What perspective do you bring to FirstNet? What do you want to accomplish during your tenure on the board?
I helped lead an emergency support agency through hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, and floods, working to restore communications and coordinate communication support during the response. I also bring more than 20 years of knowledge and experience in the telecommunications regulatory and technology field in both the public and private spheres. I have a unique understanding of the interaction between utilities and telecommunication organizations during emergency response and recovery.
I am also the only FirstNet Authority Board member from an island territory. This is very important, because responding to emergencies in an island setting is totally different from other settings. Just as there are special things to consider when bringing services to coastal areas, tribal lands, and mountainous regions, FirstNet should be aware of the differences in serving island territories to truly serve all first responders.
At the end of my tenure, I will feel a sense of accomplishment if first responders are truly served, according to their unique conditions and regional environments.
What communication challenges do U.S. territories face? How is FirstNet suited to support the territories?
Territories are islands that face recurrent emergencies, such as annual hurricane or typhoon seasons. For days after these events, territories become unreachable. Network deployable assets serve a unique purpose in this setting because they can be pre-propositioned, ready to help public safety in the crucial first hours after the disaster. FirstNet has a variety of deployables, available at no additional cost, with unique features that are built for different emergencies and situations. These deployables are made available to first responders when and where they need it most. This is unique.
Secondly, in most emergencies, first responders lose communication capabilities on other broadband networks as these networks lose the capability and capacity to support the additional network traffic. This leads to networks becoming bogged down, congested with regular commercial communications. Priority and preemption on FirstNet means responders can continue to communicate. This is an extremely valuable, life-saving tool for first responders, government, and utilities, and only FirstNet has it.
What do you see as the impact of the FirstNet network and capabilities?
FirstNet is unique. It was born out of the September 11 attacks. In the aftermath, public safety made it clear to Congress they had a need for a dedicated broadband network, and that ultimately became the mission of the FirstNet Authority.
That mission is accomplished through a unique public-private partnership, dedicated spectrum, and a core network designed to support priority and preemption. This all makes FirstNet exclusive and extremely effective. FirstNet and the FirstNet Authority have also spurred innovation in the public safety ecosystem by encouraging new services, applications, and equipment for first responders.
What drew you to a career in public service?
I became a public servant when I realized that I could be more effective in promoting the common good from inside the public sphere, particularly in terms of policy. I strongly believe that government should help citizens and foster practical solutions to everyday problems that are inclusive and beneficial for all.
For example, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was the first major overhaul of telecommunications in more than 60 years. This act changed the competitive landscape of telecommunications and broadcasting and eliminated monopolies in these markets. The act that created the FirstNet Authority is another prime example of how public servants can enact change for our communities.
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