AT&T on track with FirstNet build, most challenging sites remain

AT&T is about a year ahead of schedule on its FirstNet build but will likely take until 2023 to complete the dedicated public safety network as remaining sites are some of the most challenging to deploy, according to Jason Porter.

Earlier this year the carrier said FirstNet was more than 90% complete. AT&T won the 25-year contract to deploy and maintain a nationwide first responder network in public-private partnership with FirstNet Authority and has been building out over the last few years with Band 14 spectrum.

Porter, speaking Tuesday at a Cowen investor conference, cited significant growth for FirstNet with more than 16,000 agencies signed on and 2.2 million connections at the end of the first quarter. That’s up from 2 million earlier this year. It now covers 2.71 million square miles – 100,000 of which were added in 2020..

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Cell site deployment is the most significant measure of the buildout’s progress, Porter said, and AT&T has until March 2023 to reach the 100% mark.

“We’re building ahead of schedule right now but we’re down to the challenging sites that might be really hard to get access to,” Porter, president of public sector and FirstNet at AT&T, said during the virtual event. The carrier is still on track to finish a little before the March deadline but he acknowledged probably will “take close to the whole time” to reach those difficult, often rural, areas.

AT&T has already launched FirstNet sites on tribal lands, in Appalachia and in remote areas near national forests.

He mentioned other benchmarks included in the contract such as the number of compatible devices and applications in the ecosystem, of which FirstNet has 265 and 165, respectively.

Spectrum and shift to 5G

The FirstNet platform is built on LTE, with a dedicated core, spectrum, and always-on preemption – the latter which is a high priority for public safety users because of the reliability factor, according to Porter.

The contract came with 20-megahertz of Band 14 spectrum allocated for a nationwide interoperable public safety network, but AT&T can use it for commercial services when available. FirstNet users also get access to AT&T’s commercial LTE spectrum bands.

There’s been movement toward 5G, as FirstNet Authority issued a task order enabling the launch and shift to a 5G core earlier this year, according to Porter. And AT&T recently started offering FirstNet access to its 5G millimeter wave network, which is branded 5G+.

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Still, the reliability of Band 14 and LTE with preemption remains the focus versus 5G for most public safety customers. Porter pointed to the U.S. Capitol riots at the start of the year, during which commercial networks were hit with congestion and slowed.

“For FirstNet users, those first responders that were there on the scene responding … their devices worked effortlessly, they had no struggles from congestion or anything, and that’s because we had cleared that Band 14 so that they could use that spectrum completely and freely,” he said.  

The 5G strategy is to maintain that in LTE, but with a new 5G core in combination with AT&T mmWave augmenting to bring low-latency and high-speed access in the limited locations where 5G+ is deployed across 38 cities. AT&T is listening to both FirstNet Authority and customers, he noted, as to the timeline for moving Band 14 to 5G.

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“I think as more and more use cases come out and a level of maturity is secured with 5G millimeter wave then we would potentially move Band 14 but no timing disclosed yet,” Porter added.

Less concerned with competition

FirstNet has helped AT&T expand its own footprint, adding capacity with new spectrum in urban areas and extending into new rural locations.

Of the 2.2 million connections, Porter said the majority are phones, but that as the ecosystem matures he expects more and more IoT devices could come into play, aligning with smart cities and growth in segments like transportation and healthcare.

AT&T sells FirstNet through agencies, but eligible first responders can opt to get service for their own consumer-paid personal devices as well. The FBI is one major agency that notably changed from Verizon as its mobility provider, awarding AT&T a $92 million contract with FirstNet.

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He said that the total number of primary first responders in the U.S. – ie: fire, police, EMS – has grown from 3.5 million to just under 4 million during the pandemic. However, the total market for FirstNet is much larger when you get into extended primary customers, like doctors, nurses, tree clearing companies or others that aren’t usually first on the scene. And many are connecting more than one device, be it handsets, body cams or robotics.

With AT&T’s push into the public safety space, Verizon and T-Mobile are also competing to maintain or gain ground. T-Mobile in 2020 launched an offer for free unlimited mobile service to first responder agencies nationwide. Asked by Cowen analysts to categorize the competitive dynamic for going after the sector, Porter cited FirstNet’s growth rates that he said are setting new records every quarter and every month.

“I’m less concerned about the competition and more concerned about helping them save lives and protect their own for first responders,” Porter said.