Utility companies can subscribe to FirstNet as “extended primary” users of the nationwide public-safety broadband network (NPSBN) being deployed by AT&T, but utilities would not be eligible to receive preemptive access rights to the system unless such access was activated temporarily by a traditional public-safety entity, according to AT&T.

“As an extended-primary subscriber, a utility company providing public safety services in support of first responders has the option to purchase First Priority’s™ priority-access and data-prioritization features to help prioritize and support their critical communications for data/signaling needs,” AT&T said in a prepared statement provided to IWCE’s Urgent Communications.

Not all utility communications would be eligible for extended-primary use on the FirstNet system and the accompanying prioritization over consumer traffic, according to an AT&T spokesperson. For instance, sales and marketing personnel for a utility would not be eligible, because they would not have a role in supporting public safety, the spokesperson said.

“Extended primary subscribers are an extended community that could be called on to help support our first responders—from the mitigation, remediation, overhaul, clean up and restoration to the provisioning of other services required during the time of an emergency or its aftermath,” according to a prepared statement from AT&T. “To uphold the integrity of FirstNet, eligibility for extended primary users will be rigorously reviewed before service will be approved.”

In contrast, utility linemen and network technicians would be eligible extended-primary subscribers, because they could support public-safety efforts by maintaining or restoring the power grid at the location of an emergency. In fact, there are circumstances when such utility personnel could be “uplifted” to an access level that would give them preemptive access to FirstNet, just as fire, EMS, law-enforcement, 911 and emergency-management personnel enjoy on a regular basis.

“Primary public safety subscribers (fire, law enforcement, EMS, emergency management and PSAPs) can also temporarily uplift extended-primary subscribers—like utility companies,” according to the AT&T prepared statement. “This can give utility companies an even higher level of priority or temporary preemption capabilities on FirstNet to help them manage the public safety incident—such as clearing downed power lines.”

Exactly how utility connections would be treated within the FirstNet system has been a subject of considerable speculation almost from the moment that Congress passed the legislation creating FirstNet in 2012. Chris Sambar, AT&T’s senior vice president for FirstNet, indicated that there was still some uncertainty surrounding the treatment of utilities on the FirstNet system as recently as two months ago. 

“We’re still determining the disposition when it comes to power companies," Sambar said during an interview with IWCE's Urgent Communications prior to IWCE 2018. "That’s a little tougher one to answer, honestly.”

There has been little doubt that certain utility communications meet the public-safety qualification for FirstNet, but there have been significant questions whether utilities would be given the kind of prioritization needed to use FirstNet as the primary service for the most-important communications associated with the power grid or water supply.