FirstNet Invites U.S. States to Sign Up for Public Safety Broadband Network

AT&T won a $7 billion contract to develop a broadband network that prioritizes traffic from first responders. Now, states must decide whether to opt in, or build their own service

4 min read
Officers with the Texas Highway Patrol steer a small boat down a river surrounded by tall grass.
Photo: FirstNet

This is a guest post. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the blogger and do not represent positions of IEEE Spectrum, or the IEEE.

Three monster hurricanes pummeled the United States and Puerto Rico in recent weeks. As soon as they hit land, public safety personnel were there to help those in harm’s way. To do that important work, first responders deserve a reliable wireless network of their very own.

A little over a decade ago, the public safety community began advocating for a wireless broadband network to be used exclusively by first responders. This was in the aftermath of emergency response teams in New York City struggling to communicate with one another while responding to a major terrorist attack on September 11, 2001.

The First Responder Network Authority (“FirstNet”) grew out of a 9/11 Commission recommendation calling for interoperable communications for all U.S. first responders. In 2012, Congress passed legislation allocating 20 megahertz of spectrum in Band 14 and $7 billion to create a nationwide network just for emergency responders.

Since the authority’s inception, FirstNet staff have met with more than 100,000 public safety stakeholders nationwide to develop customized strategies to ensure the network suits their needs. Our consultations with first responders has provided us with actionable information on the challenges they face. The difficulty is summed up succintly by Tom Sorely, Deputy CIO, City of Houston, Texas:

We compete with 70,000 football fans updating Facebook and Twitter to get our emergency messages through. It makes it very difficult to complete our mission.

We’ve gathered data from more than two million public safety personnel at 12,000 agencies nationwide. Each state and territory shared data with us from local agencies about patrol numbers, dispatch workload, special annual events that attract large crowds, seasonal operations, and any federal entities and tribal nations in the area.

We found extreme variations in public safety needs. For example, a law enforcement agency in New Jersey may support maritime operations, whereas a law enforcement agency in Wyoming needs to be able to operate deep in mountainous terrain.

FirstNet also learned that coverage and cell-site tower placement are two of the most important topics to first responders and agency heads. Dropped calls, or an inability to load Google Maps in the field, disrupts rescues and delays responders from providing services such as urgent medical care.

This year, FirstNet took several important steps toward completing America’s first nationwide wireless network dedicated to public safety. In March, we selected AT&T as the technology provider to build and operate the network. In June, we delivered customized plans to the states and territories. These plans outline the coverage, features, and mission-critical capabilities that FirstNet and AT&T will bring to each state, if they choose to sign up for it.

States and territories now have until late December to decide whether to allow AT&T to deploy the FirstNet radio access network (RAN) in their state or territory, or to build the FirstNet RAN on their own. In July, Virginia announced that it would become the first state to “opt-in” and go with the FirstNet/AT&T plan to build Virginia’s portion of the RAN. Since that decision, several more states have opted-in.

A governor’s decision to opt-in immediately grants public safety AT&T subscribers in that state access to prioritized traffic across AT&T’s existing network, with guaranteed quality of service not just on Band 14, but on all AT&T’s LTE licensed spectrum nationwide. AT&T will also offer pre-emption for public safety traffic by the end of 2017. These services are included at no additional cost to first responders that are AT&T subscribers in states that opt-in to FirstNet.

A portable base station consisting of an antenna mast attached to a trailer is shown on the top floor of a parking garage in front of a marshy landscape. A portable base station known as a cell on wheels (COW) can be deployed to provide cell coverage after floods or storms.Photo: NJ Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness

As stated in the Act that created FirstNet, governors can choose to “opt-out” and build their own RAN within a state or territory. Given the process for doing that, these states or territories may face multi-year delays in offering their services for public safety. Regardless of the decision, both opt-in and opt-out states will connect to the dedicated FirstNet core network, which is scheduled to be operational in early 2018.

The next step for this network is to deploy a dedicated public safety core architecture. This FirstNet Core will provide specialized public safety features not currently available on commercial networks, such as local control and encryption.

The FirstNet Innovation and Test Lab in Boulder, Colo., will build, test, and support network solutions that will improve communications and functionality between first responders. Another project supported by FirstNet is developing indoor location services, a key need for firefighters that will help them more quickly navigate a burning building.

To reach remote areas or disaster zones, AT&T will also provide states with access to 72 deployable base stations (known as “cells on wheels,” or COWs), along with more than 700 other pieces of equipment including “cells on light trucks” (COLTs), trailers, and generators.

Overall, AT&T will invest $40 billion in FirstNet over the life of the contract, and the network will also leverage the company’s existing network, valued at more than $180 billion.

As the weather events of this past summer have demonstrated, the need for a resilient, interoperable network with priority and pre-emption for first responders is as pressing today as it was 16 years ago. By the next hurricane season, public safety personnel should begin to reap the benefits of a dedicated public safety broadband network, a service they’ve needed for so long.

About the Author

Jeff Bratcher is the chief technology officer for FirstNet.

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