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.

Meanwhile, FirstNet’s partnership with AT&T also has addressed many longstanding questions asked by public safety.

With AT&T contractually obligated to pay FirstNet $18 billion during the next 25 years, there is little question that FirstNet will be financially self-sustaining, and that money will be available to pay for network upgrades to next-generation technologies.

Concerns about device availability—among the biggest issues for public safety, once upon a time—are almost nonexistent. With priority and preemption across AT&T bands, public safety can use existing devices to access FirstNet, while Samsung and Sonim Technologies recently released FirstNet-certified devices that include Band 14 connectivity. With AT&T as a partner, it seems clear that FirstNet users will be able to choose from a wide variety of devices that offer different features, in terms of functionality, form factor and hardening.

Are there still questions surrounding FirstNet? Absolutely. It’s a huge, multifaceted endeavor that will be evolving over time. Here are just a few examples:

  • Local control has been promised as a key component of FirstNet for years. Technically, will the incident-management interface provide the flexibility that public safety needs during a response? Operationally, has public safety established the policies needed to use the effectively?
  • FirstNet’s applications catalog is in its infancy, but it could prove to be one of FirstNet’s greatest values to the first-responder community. Public-safety representatives understandably like the concept that included applications will be vetted for both functionality and security. However, will approval processes might hamper innovation?
  • Most emergency responses start with a 911 call. How will FirstNet interface with 911 centers, whether they are using legacy technology or have migrated to a next-generation-911 platform?
  • Hardening FirstNet’s network elements has been a primary focus of public safety, but implementing the kind of hardening techniques used in an LMR environment is not practical for every LTE site. How will FirstNet and AT&T best utilize resources while ensuring that critical communications always are enabled? Will “bring the network with you” solutions help offset some of these concerns?
  • FirstNet and AT&T have developed procedures for public-safety agencies to provide agency-paid connectivity and devices to personnel. How will user-paid subscriber devices and bring-your-own-device (BYOD) subscriptions—a vital option, especially to volunteer departments—be implemented, particularly in terms of agency management and security?
  • Cybersecurity is critical for all public-safety agencies, and FirstNet officials have said this network has the advantage of having security as a focal point of the network from the earliest design stages. Will FirstNet be able to withstand all of the cyberattacks that certainly will be launched against it as a prime targe for foreign and domestic hackers?  
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