FirstNet Board greenlights $218M for core network upgrades, more deployable assets

FirstNet, the dedicated public safety communications network built by AT&T through a public-private partnership, is getting more than $200 million for enhancements to its portable assets and core network for 5G. 

The First Responder Network Authority Board at its quarterly meeting today signed off on $218 million for strategic investments targeting two areas: initial core network upgrades as the first phase of moving to 5G, and expanding FirstNet’s fleet of deployable assets.

These both align with FirstNet’s six Roadmap domains, which help prioritize investments, among other resources.  

“These investments mark the next major step in our mission as we continue to evolve the FirstNet network based on public safety’s needs,” said FirstNet Authority Board Chair Edward Horowitz in a statement. “The Board’s actions set the network on a path to 5G and will boost on-demand coverage for public safety. We look forward to delivering on these advancements for public safety and working to identify our next network investment opportunities.”

AT&T fought for and won the 25-year FirstNet contract in 2017. FirstNet is an independent authority within the U.S. Commerce Department, authorized by Congress in 2012. AT&T started building out the nationwide public safety network about two years ago, expanding coverage with Band 14 spectrum alongside its own 4G LTE upgrades while preparing for 5G. More than 12,000 public safety agencies and organizations now subscribe to the FirstNet platform, representing more than 1.3 million connections.

RELATED: T-Mobile makes public safety a 3-way race – sort of

Although Verizon has led in public safety, AT&T’s FirstNet build has brought competition. Rival T-Mobile last month made a move to court the public safety sector, offering first responder agencies free unlimited mobile service in a 10-year commitment.

In terms of the dedicated core network for FirstNet, it’s the first nationwide LTE packet core infrastructure designed specifically for public safety. The core is physically separate, redundant and highly secure, with all public safety traffic distinct and separate from commercial users. It supports priority and preemption for first responders.  

The majority of investment announced today is for 5G, an AT&T spokesperson told Fierce Wireless, but specific amounts are contract sensitive.The benefit of the initial core infrastructure upgrade is that FirstNet users with 5G-capable devices will be able to tap AT&T's 5G spectrum, while keeping access to LTE (Band 14, plus all of AT&T's LTE bands) with priority and preemption, the spokesperson said in an emailed response. More information will be available as task order are executed and implemented. 

For 5G, FirstNet Authority anticipates the transition will be a multi-phase effort but it’s getting ready so the network can be prepared once 5G is suitable for public safety use.

"This investment builds on to FirstNet’s dedicated Core and ensures public safety’s network will continue to evolve to meet the needs of NPSBN subscribers and support innovative new technologies to help them serve their communities. Innovations in mission critical features are still being developed and tested," the AT&T spokesperson said, adding innovation in mission critical features are still being developed and tested and will be implemented as they become available. 

According to the news release, down the line 5G is expected to boost the number and kinds of devices for public safety use, such as vehicles, unmanned aerial vehicles and sensors.

RELATED: AT&T’s FirstNet build 75% complete; CFO says ‘money well spent’

“As commercial providers worldwide begin to transition to 5G, it is strategically important that the FirstNet network keeps pace with these advances,” wrote Chuck Shaughnessy, FirstNet Authority Senior Advisor and Erickson Trejo-Reyes, Senior Core Architect in an April blog post describing FirstNet’s roadmap technology domains. “Doing so will ensure public safety is able to take advantage of the potential of 5G when it is ready for public safety.”

FirstNet’s deployable asset fleet is used to deliver added coverage and capacity on-demand during emergencies and at large events. The fleet already has 73 land-based deployables, including Satellite Cell on Light Trucks (SatCOLTs), along with three Cell on Wings (or Flying COWs), and the FirstNet One aerostat or blimp. 

The deployable blimp, introduced last December, is meant to aid first responders during large-scale catastrophes. It can fly up to 1,000 feet and potentially deliver two-times the coverage compared to other deployable assets. AT&T said FirstNet One, which can go about two weeks in the air before needing additional helium, gives first responders portable connectivity over an extended period of time.  

RELATED: AT&T’s FirstNet uses ‘deployable’ fleet for COVID response

In 2019, FirstNet deployable assets were requested to help support more than 450 operations around the country, including assisting in emergency response to wildfires and hurricanes. They’ve also been used this year to aid the response to the COVID-19 crisis, including portable cell sites deployed at a major medical facility in California for added capacity and delivered connectivity to the Navy hospital ship USNS Mercy at a port in Los Angeles.

Other than expanding its dedicated portable cell sites, the new investment will enable AT&T to deliver new types of public safety assets like mobile command vehicles and smaller form factor deployables, the spokesperson said. During an emergency, a mobile command vehicle can be stationed near the scene to provide a central communications hub for first responders. The new deployables are expected next year. 

The resolution approved today directs FirstNet Authority management to issue two task orders under its nationwide contract with AT&T.  

“This is a significant milestone for the FirstNet Authority’s strategic investment program, which is driven by our partners in public safety,” said FirstNet Authority Executive Director Edward Parkinson, in a statement. “We appreciate their continued support as we work with them to identify investment opportunities for FirstNet, the only nationwide public safety broadband network.

Updated with additional information from AT&T spokesperson.