A new report highlights FirstNet’s progress in its goal of enhancing public safety communications using a nationwide interoperable broadband network for first responders. The report provides an update after three years of a public-private partnership between AT&T and the First Responder Network Authority, which oversees the development of FirstNet. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for FirstNet is more critical than ever.
The report comes from the First Responder Voice project, a source of information, news and analysis that seeks to ensure that FirstNet serves first responders effectively. First Responder Voice is a project to the Communications Workers of America (CWA), a labor union. AT&T is the country’s only unionized wireless carrier.
First responder network deployment and subscriber progress
FirstNet’s subscribers are on the increase: The number of public service agencies and organizations subscribed to FirstNet has increased tenfold in less than two years. As of February 2020, 11,000 organizations have subscribed and connected 1.2 million devices to the network
Between January and July of 2019, the monthly levels of device connections to FirstNet outperformed expectations at approximately 196% of projected targets. In May 2019, a majority of agencies and nearly 50% of FirstNet’s total connections were new subscribers (not AT&T migrations), suggesting that first responders are seeing FirstNet as a credible value-add proposition.
As of March 2020, FirstNet network deployment is 80% complete. The achievement was accomplished in just two years and a year earlier than expected. The First Responder Network Authority gave AT&T the go-ahead in March 2018 to deploy the network’s Band 14 spectrum across dedicated radio access networks in all states and territories. AT&T was given exclusive access to Band 14, which is 20 MHz of spectrum in the 700 MHz frequency band.
So far, Band 14 spectrum has been deployed on existing cell sites in more than 675 markets nationwide. AT&T added more than 170,000 square miles to its LTE network coverage in 2018 and 2019
“The current pandemic is magnifying the need for our country’s first responders to have access to an interoperable broadband network, and FirstNet provides that solution,” says Bianca Garcia, CWS’s FirstNet Project Coordinator.
Professional and volunteer fire departments are among the long list of FirstNet subscriber agencies and jurisdictions. Career fire departments in Las Vegas, Miami-Dade, and Seattle are subscribers, as are volunteer departments in Snyder County, Pa.; Allegany County, Md.; and Delaware. The Georgia and Rhode Island emergency management agencies are subscribers, as are law enforcement agencies in Anchorage, Baltimore, Chicago, Kansas and New Mexico. Federal agencies who are subscribers include the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), U.S. Coast Guard, and the Department of the Navy.
Impending innovations for FirstNet subscribers
High-powered user equipment (HPUE) will be available in coming months and will almost double the coverage range for FirstNet subscribers. The equipment is currently being certified, and early deployment will likely be in devices such as in-vehicle routers. AT&T is working with Assured Wireless to develop the devices. The technology increases the range of a cell sector by about 80%, especially useful in rural areas.
Mission critical push-to-talk (MCPTT) service is available on FirstNet during the first quarter of 2020
According to the First Responder Voice report, FirstNet’s innovations include unthrottled connectivity; a separate, purpose-built network core with end-to-end encryption; priority and preemption capabilities; local control of users and applications; and more than 75 deployable solutions such as land-based Satellite Cell on Light Trucks and Flying Cells on Wheels.
Operational benefits of public-private partnership
The future roadmap of the First Responder Network Authority will be shaped by nurturing a deep and shared understand of public safety’s operational needs and by collaborating with public safety to realize the operational benefits of the FirstNet experience. The public-private partnership model that drives FirstNet will ensure that financial resources are invested based on agreed-upon priorities.
The First Responder Voice report also finds that AT&T could provide greater transparency about its progress on state-specific buildout commitments and should detail the states that are seeing lower-than-target-level FirstNet subscribership.