Of course, preemptive access is only beneficial to first responders in areas where AT&T provides coverage, whether the coverage is provided by fixed terrestrial cell sites or by deployable solutions transported by large communications units, light trucks, drones, weather balloons or satellites.

Some first-responder agencies have expressed a reluctance to adopt certain data applications that could be very useful, noting the fact that the application would be running on a commercial broadband network that might not be available at the time that public safety needs it the most. Having ruthless preemption on FirstNet “will certainly erase that issue” for the Fairfax County fire department, Bowers said.

Ruthless preemption automatically is provided to all FirstNet subscribers in the “primary” public-safety category—law enforcement, fire, EMS, 911 and emergency-management personnel. FirstNet subscribers in the “extended primary” public-safety category—undefined at the moment, but it is expected to include at least some personnel in the utility, transportation, government, hospital and other critical-infrastructure sectors—will be given priority access but not preemption on an automatic basis.

However, in certain cases, could be elevated to receive preemptive access, according to a statement from an AT&T spokesperson.

“There may be a need for additional public safety personnel to temporarily receive preemptive access on AT&T’s commercial LTE spectrum. If that happens, AT&T will provide preemption in a manner that:

  • Complies with the Communications Act as well as other applicable laws, regulations, and orders;
  • Fits within the exceptions for public safety and security in FCC rules;
  • Promotes Congress’s clear objectives reflected in the 2012 Spectrum Act, and
  • Does not, in any way, impede 911 communications initiated by the public.”

Both preemptive and priority access across the AT&T network is available only to FirstNet subscribers, which currently means that the users must work in a state or territory where the governor has made an “opt-in” decision that allows FirstNet and AT&T to build and operate the state radio access network (RAN) for the next 25 years.

Preemptive and priority access will be provided to FirstNet subscribers in “opt-out” states and territories, but not until after the state has received all necessary approvals and has built and alternative RAN within its borders—a process that is expected to take years.

Bowers said the fact that FirstNet and AT&T executed on a promise to deliver preemption to public-safety users by the end of the year is an encouraging sign as first-responder agencies try to plan around future FirstNet deployment and feature-implementation timetables.

“Words are one thing, … but they’re overshadowed by the fact that actions speak louder than words,” Bowers said. “In … fire and EMS, that’s something we look at—if you tell me something, you better deliver. They delivered, and this is great.”