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.

Some of the most significant FirstNet questions revolve around technologies that are not commercially available yet. Push-to-talk-over-cellular (PoC) solutions already are having a significant impact on the LMR market serving enterprise and commercial customers. Some speculate that mission-critical-push-to-talk (MCPTT) could have a similar impact in the public-safety and critical-infrastructure arenas.

Considerable MCPTT testing is ongoing, and AT&T plans to introduce MCPTT service on FirstNet by the end of the year. Most technical experts believe MCPTT should work well when users are connected to an LTE network with quality of service, priority and preemption (QPP), like FirstNet. There are concerns whether the MCPTT proximity-services standard—direct-mode functionality in the LTE standard—can deliver the signal strength and range that public safety wants, so myriad alternatives are being developed.

Location-based services that can identify the location of a firefighter in a heavy-smoke environment is another technology that FirstNet and AT&T want to introduce on the FirstNet system, but a technology for addressing this extremely complex problem has not been found yet.

Only time will tell how well these next-generation technologies will work on FirstNet. The good news for public safety is that public-safety experts and very smart engineers from AT&T, FirstNet and others—from industry and government, inside the U.S. and globally—are working to develop solutions. Even better, FirstNet’s technical staff is overseeing these network and solutions efforts to ensure that they work for public safety.

Of course, the ultimate tests for FirstNet are not something that can be found in a deployment or development timetable or contract. They will occur when the system is required to support public safety during a large emergency response that will stress the capacities and capabilities of the network. FirstNet needs to perform well in these situations, so public safety will feel more comfortable about trusting the connectivity and certified solutions.

Until then, it is important that FirstNet and AT&T continue to meet deployment and development goals within promised timeframes. Based on the progress exhibited during the first year of the partnership, public safety should be encouraged.


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