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.

For a public-safety community that had been told for years that Band 14 spectrum would be at the heart of the FirstNet system, the idea of utilizing AT&T’s commercial spectrum was difficult for many to grasp and accept. This is understandable, given the fact that this approach was not something public safety expected and was not what was in the FirstNet RFP.

But leveraging AT&T’s commercial spectrum provides many advantages, including:

  • Quicker time to market for a network offering—Public safety has been waiting for this broadband capability for more than a decade, and this approach provide an immediate coverage base.
  • Greater capacity/flexibility during emergencies—20 MHz of Band 14 is a lot of spectrum, but it is still conceivable that several first responder streaming video from a scene could create capacity problems in a given cell sector. Having access to AT&T’s commercial spectrum typically should address any capacity concerns, particularly because AT&T plans to deploy 40 MHz of AWS-3 and WCS spectrum in locations where Band 14 is deployed.
  • Easier technology-upgrade path—FirstNet is designed as a 4G network, but U.S. carriers plan to begin rollout of 5G networks on millimeter-wave spectrum (at 28 GHz and 39 GHz) later this year. FirstNet does not hold a license to any millimeter-wave spectrum, but working with AT&T can ensure that public safety will not be left behind during the 25-year period of the contract.

To be clear, it’s not like AT&T is going to ignore the Band 14 spectrum licensed to FirstNet. Chris Sambar, AT&T’s senior vice president for FirstNet, has said that the carrier plans to provide Band 14 coverage to at least 95% of the U.S. population.

In addition, the Band 14 deployment—again, coupled with deployments of the 40 MHz of AWS-3 and WCS spectrum, in most cases—apparently will be executed more quickly than originally anticipated, with deployment happening at one-third of AT&T’s existing sites this year. Not only does AT&T have the promise of $6.5 billion in reimbursement from FirstNet to pay for such deployments, the new corporate tax structure means AT&T has more money for capital expenditures.

But perhaps the biggest reason for optimism that FirstNet coverage will be enhanced quickly is that governors for all 56 states and territories made “opt-in” decisions last year. FirstNet and AT&T resources that conceivably would have been used to address at least a year’s work of potentially complex technical and legal issues associated with “opt-out” states can now be devoted to deploying the network and developing public-safety services.

AT&T has even greater incentive to maintain focus on its FirstNet deployment and offerings, because archrival Verizon—currently the market-share leader in public-safety broadband—has been made it clear that it does not intend to lose its public-safety customers. Verizon officials essentially have vowed to match FirstNet offerings, with the carrier this week also making a public-safety LTE core announcement.

Numerous public-safety officials have commented that it is great to have AT&T and Verizon taking steps to cater to first-responder entities now, because it was not long ago that carriers were reluctant to respond to public-safety requests.

FirstNet’s impact on the market also has extended beyond the cellular world. At IWCE 2018 show in Orlando early this month, the exhibit-hall booths—even those manned by longtime LMR companies—commonly showcased new solutions that are designed to interoperate with FirstNet or other broadband offerings.

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