AT&T has added equipment to support operations on 700 MHz Band 14 spectrum at more than 2,500 cell sites and the carrier expects to meet its initial network-buildout target for FirstNet at least three months ahead of schedule, according to the AT&T official overseeing the deployment.

Chris Sambar, senior vice president for AT&T-FirstNet, said the FirstNet deployment is “going really well” since FirstNet in March issued the task order to deploy Band 14—spectrum licensed to FirstNet—across the nationwide public-safety broadband network (NPSBN). AT&T expects to meet its first network buildout target by the end of this year, he said.

“The first build milestone that we have to hit is in March 2019,” Sambar said yesterday during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “We want to close that first milestone out this year, as opposed to waiting until March of next year. It’s a benefit to first responders to get the spectrum up as fast as possible, so our plan is to close that out as quickly as possible.

“We’re very pleased with how things are going, and we’re on track to meet that milestone this year.”

As AT&T crews deploy the 20 MHz of Band 14 spectrum at a site, they also are simultaneously installing gear to provide service on 20 MHz of WCS airwaves and 20 MHz of AWS-3 spectrum. With an additional 60 MHz of spectrum to use for LTE service, Band 14 deployment “dramatically increases capacity on any given site,” Sambar said, noting that the extra bandwidth promises to benefit performance to FirstNet subscribers.

Band 14 deployments are underway in all 50 states and Puerto Rico, according to an AT&T press release that was issued last week. While more than 2,500 cell sites have had Band 14 capability installed, more than 10,000 other sites are in the process of Band 14 upgrades in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. On-air testing of Band 14 is ready in more than 40 states, including California, Florida, Illinois, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Texas, according to AT&T.

In addition to Band 14 deployment on all of these existing AT&T cell sites, the carrier will expand its coverage footprint with more than 1,000 new cell sites—macro sites located primarily in rural areas that have not had coverage before--nationwide specified by governors during the opt-in process that was completed last year, Sambar said.

“When you would go to any given state, the governor would say, ‘I’ll opt-in, but I want coverage here, here and here,’" he said. "Most of those are in rural areas, and that’s where most of those sites came from.

“That doesn’t even count AT&T normal commercial build, which is well beyond the 1,000 [new sites]. We’re just talking specifically about FirstNet sites that were negotiated with the states.”

AT&T last week announced plans to build one of the new cell sites in Bedford County, Pa., where first responders had difficulty communicating during response efforts to a train derailment a year ago.

“That’s one of the 1,000-plus sites where the governor said, ‘We had the train-derailment tragedy, and there was no coverage from any carrier. Can you put a site here?’ We said, ‘Of course,’ Sambar said. “That’s an example of one of those sites, and there’s over a thousand of those across the country.

“As those sites turn up—that one [in Bedford County] is coming in early 2019—you’re going to probably see a lot of press releases around the country from governors who are really excited about the fact that they’re getting all of this new coverage in rural areas where they didn’t have it before.”

AT&T is not able to give a firm timelines on the bulk of the new sites and Band 14 upgrades to existing sites, because those deployments are subject to the ability of the carrier to complete regulatory processes that can include oft-unpredictable zoning and environmental approvals, Sambar said.