AT&T plans to leverage its investment in FirstNet to expand its rural coverage, harden its network and prepare all of the carrier’s cell sites to support 5G services via software upgrades, according to AT&T executives.

Last March, AT&T was announced as FirstNet’s contractor to build a nationwide public-safety broadband network (NPSBN), in return for access to 20 MHz of Band 14 700 MHz spectrum licensed to FirstNet and $6.5 billion that would be paid to the carrier as it meets deployment milestones.

By law, the FirstNet system is supposed to provide public safety with communications in rural areas. John Donovan, CEO of AT&T Communications, said the company’s rural efforts will not be limited to first-responder service.

“If you look at where T-Mobile in wireless and Verizon in wireless are succeeding, they’re polar opposites—T-Mobile much more urban, Verizon much more rural,” Donovan said last week during the MoffatNathanson Media & Communications Summit. “FirstNet gives us a great opportunity to go into the rural markets. Not only will we be building the network for first responders, it dawned on us that we should also be putting up stores and going after the consumers.

“So, I think Verizon’s going to have their hands full with our strategy going forward in the more rural areas.”

Verizon also will be challenged by AT&T for public-safety subscribers during the second half of this year, Donovan said. To date, most first-responders agencies that have signed FirstNet contracts previously were AT&T commercial customers. However, during the second half of this year, AT&T expects to see public-safety agencies switch from Verizon—the public-safety market-share leader today—to FirstNet for broadband services, he said.

“The benefit for them is that not only do they get onto a dedicated core with a fallback on the commercial network, but they also get features like preemption and all of those sorts of things that provide them benefits,” Donovan said. “We anticipate, starting this year, to build wireless-customer growth from those, because—as I’m sure you are aware—today the preponderance of that market share sits with Verizon, and we anticipate a lot of that moving to [FirstNet].”

AT&T Chairman and CEO Randall Stephenson echoed this sentiment.

“We're way underindexed, in terms of market share in the first-responder community, and so this is an all-upside opportunity for AT&T,” Stephenson said last week during the J.P. Morgan Technology, Media and Communications Conference. “It’s a really significant opportunity.

“We can garner the first-responder community, number one; and then family of first responder community, number two—the ability to literally market to the family of first responders. And this is going better than we hoped. The deployment is going really, really well. We are on plan. We are on target. We'd like to accelerate it and go faster, if possible.”

Donovan said AT&T expects to spend about $2 billion on its FirstNet deployment initiative this year. In addition, he reiterated AT&T’s plans to have crews that deploy Band 14 equipment also will install equipment to support operations on 20 MHz of WCS spectrum and 20 MHz of AWS-3 spectrum, so AT&T will be able to utilize a total of 60 MHz of new spectrum for LTE services.

This approach is efficient for AT&T, Donovan said. When asked about the amount of savings that would be realized through this deployment strategy, Donovan estimated it would be “give or take a billion dollars, so it’s a really big benefit for us.”