AT&T surpasses 750K FirstNet connections, developing HPUE with Assured Wireless

AT&T said it has surpassed 750,000 connections on the FirstNet dedicated public safety communications network, marking an increase of roughly 150,000 over the last three months.

Band 14 spectrum has been deployed in about 650 markets and nearly 9,000 public safety agencies are now subscribed to the nationwide first responder platform, the carrier said Monday. In early May, AT&T boasted more than 600,000 FirstNet connections, used by 7,250 public safety agencies.

AT&T reiterated recent executive comments that the FirstNet buildout of Band 14 spectrum is 65% complete and on track to wrap up 70% by year-end.  

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So far in 2019, FirstNet supported first responders in 75 emergency events, including flooding in Illinois and fires in northern Alaska, as well as more than 100 planned events. FirstNet touts 75 dedicated deployable network assets, including three flying cell-on-wheels (COWs), with 175 asset deployments planned for emergency events this year.

“We helped organize deployment to fight a fire in northern Alaska last month, and we needed communications,” said John Rockwell, Statewide 9-1-1 Coordinator, FirstNet SPOC, Acting SWIC, Department of Public Safety, Alaska State Troopers, in a statement. “A FirstNet SatCOLT was there in 5 hours. It was the furthest north we’ve ever had unified communications, making our ability to respond that much easier and more efficient.”

AT&T also said it’s developing 3GPP-based high-power user equipment (HPUE) with Assured Wireless to help deliver stronger signals for better indoor coverage in places like basements, elevators and stairwells.

In rural and remote areas, HPUE can triple a cell site’s coverage range, AT&T said.

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One priority of the public-private partnership with FirstNet Authority is to enhance situational awareness and security for public safety personnel via specialized apps. The FirstNet app catalog contains now 50 unique apps, including FirstNet Assist which allows first responders in the field to see mutual incidents within a 50-mile radius and request device uplift, according to AT&T.

The first responder market accounts for about 3 million potential subscribers, AT&T executives said recently, but noted that figure grows to about 14 million when secondary public safety personnel are added in.

As it builds out FirstNet, AT&T has simultaneously added capacity (on average adding 60 MHz of new spectrum) and upgraded hardware on its 4G LTE network. The enhancements have resulted in significant performance improvements for AT&T, according to recent network tests by Ookla and Opensignal.

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The new hardware is also 5G-capable via future software upgrades. AT&T CFO John Stephens speaking at a recent investor conference said AT&T can upgrade “a significant part” of its core network to 5G once the software is available, which the carrier is hopeful will be later this year, with a commitment to cover 200 million PoPs by mid-2020.