Urgent Matters

Even in its first year, FirstNet-AT&T partnership has a significant impact on public-safety communications

by Donny Jackson
Mar 30, 2018

It has only been a year since AT&T was awarded with the nationwide FirstNet contract. For public safety, progress on the FirstNet LTE system is moving much faster than expected, driven largely by the decision to provide priority and preemption across all of AT&T’s commercial spectrum.

What a difference a year makes.

A year ago this morning, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross announced that AT&T had been awarded the contract to build, maintain and upgrade FirstNet’s nationwide public-safety broadband network (NPSBN).

Clearly, this was a momentous from a historical perspective, but it also was also somewhat anticlimactic for many in public safety. After all, it had been clear for months that AT&T had been selected as the winning bidder in the FirstNet request for proposals (RFP) sweepstakes, and it had been a couple of weeks since a federal judge had ruled against Rivada Mercury’s protest of the FirstNet procurement.

As I rushed from my Las Vegas hotel room to the IWCE 2017 after the Ross ceremony—the announcement was made in Washington, D.C., on Thursday morning before the show opened that day—I briefly ran into a public-safety-communications veteran who had followed the public-safety broadband saga for more than a decade.

“Isn’t this great?” the public-safety veteran said with an excited, beaming face as he shook my hand energetically.

But the facial expression quickly turned somber as we quickly discussed FirstNet’s apparent next steps.

“That’s going to take some time, and I’m planning to retire in the next two or three years,” the public-safety veteran said, shaking his head in regret. “My guess is that my agency will never get to use FirstNet while I’m there.”

Another public-safety veteran—this one a FirstNet skeptic—pointed to the fact that it would take years to deploy a Band 14 network.

“Everyone is talking about FirstNet, but the reality is that there’s no service to buy right now—and I’ll be retired by the time this thing gets built out and there’s something to buy,” said one the head of one public-safety radio shop.

It was hard to argue against these conclusions, based on the information available at the time. Building a new public-safety LTE network on the 700 MHz Band 14 spectrum licensed to FirstNet—the task that was identified in FirstNet’s RFP—was scheduled to take five years to be completed, and the work only could begin in earnest after governors made decisions in the unprecedented “opt-in/opt-out” process.

In addition, government-led projects are notorious for taking much longer than projected, although FirstNet already had developed a reputation of meeting its stated deadlines.

But such doubt-filled conversations about FirstNet timelines soon would change dramatically—and it happened within a matter of hours.

By that afternoon, we learned that AT&T had agreed to give FirstNet “primary” public-safety subscribers priority and preemption across its entire network. This meant that first-responder subscribers would have access as much as 150 MHz of AT&T’s existing spectrum in some locations—not to mention the 20 MHz of Band 14 airwaves licensed to FirstNet in states making an “opt-in” decision.

This was an unexpected development. Remember, represenatives for both Verizon and AT&T told federal officials in 2010 that they would not prioritize public-safety users on their wireless networks, because doing so would not be in their shareholders’ best interest. In fact, many public-safety representatives believe FirstNet would not exist today, if the carriers had agreed to give public-safety users priority/preemption at that time.

AT&T’s priority/preemption revelation drastically altered thoughts about timetables and other concerns surrounding FirstNet offerings, although it took some time for many to realize all of the implications.

By providing priority and preemption across all AT&T bands, a service that was superior than the existing AT&T commercial broadband service would be available immediately—after an “opt-in” decision from the state, of course. Instead of waiting years for a Band 14 network to be deployed, this approach meant that FirstNet’s coverage footprint already included most urban and suburban locations nationwide, thanks to AT&T’s commercial coverage.

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