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

T-Mobile was mostly absent from the public safety market until it announced its “Connecting Heroes” program, pitting its offer against services from Verizon and AT&T.

The public safety market thus far has been dominated by Verizon, whose primary challenger is AT&T, which operates the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) network dedicated to public safety. Then T-Mobile stepped in this week with the offer of free unlimited mobile service, including 5G, to first responder agencies nationwide. Plus, it's pledging a $7.7 billion investment over 10 years. 

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Open to all public and non-profit state and local agencies that provide police, fire or EMT services, T-Mobile’s initiative was first announced in November as one of several commitments made by T-Mobile to get approval of its merger with Sprint, which closed April 1. In its original pledge last fall, executives said first responders would have preemption and there would be no data caps, no throttling and no deprioritization.

Indeed, the combination of Sprint and T-Mobile yields a significant spectrum resource that will be useful to the public safety community, especially for providing, for example, supplementary capacity for mobile command vehicles that use mobile routers, said Omdia analyst Ken Rehbehn. In addition, it potentially provides redundancy in terms of geographical coverage, because T-Mobile and Sprint have coverage in places where AT&T and Verizon “are perhaps wanting.”

“The combination of the two companies together has set the stage for the new T-Mobile to become a much more potent player in the public safety world,” Rehbehn told Fierce, referring to the combination of Sprint’s 2.5 GHz and T-Mobile’s 600 and 700 MHz. “They can match Verizon. The challenge for T-Mobile and Sprint is that they do not have the market share lead that Verizon has.”

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Verizon has enjoyed that lead for a while – but FirstNet threatens that. Authorized by Congress in 2012, FirstNet is an independent authority within the U.S. Department of Commerce. It was the subject of years of wrangling before AT&T finally won the contract to build the network, for which it received access to FirstNet’s 20 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum.

According to Rehbehn, the closure of Sprint merger was the only way the new T-Mobile could really start to cultivate this market. “I think there’s so much more that they can do and that they should do. They should be able to go ahead and create a dedicated core,” he said. “They should be able to really describe the capabilities of their network so that agency officials who are considering alternatives can include them” when making their decisions about service providers.

Asked for a response to T-Mobile's latest "un-carrier” move, both FirstNet and AT&T pointed to unique aspects of FirstNet. 

“It is clear that FirstNet is driving a focus on the public safety marketplace like never before, while also setting a higher bar for public safety services,” said a FirstNet spokesperson in a statement. “FirstNet is not a commercial offering - it is the only network designed specifically for America’s first responders. We’ve worked hand-in-hand with public safety across the nation to deliver a dedicated network to help them save lives and protect communities.”

AT&T emphasized that it provides a level of priority for public safety that others do not. “We are proud to work with the public safety community to build a network dedicated specifically to them when they need it, and one that always puts them first. Early in the COVID-19 fight, FirstNet launched free smartphones for life for first responder agencies and those free devices are more important than ever now on their truly unlimited plans,” said Jason Porter, senior vice president, FirstNet Program at AT&T, in a statement.

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“FirstNet doesn’t block, or throttle data or voice calling, unlike many commercial network plans,” Porter added. “Much more than a service plan, FirstNet is an entire ecosystem to help them effectively respond to their critical missions. We’ve been serving public safety’s fight in this pandemic since January. I’m humbled by the role our company plays in serving these heroes. I expect first responders can see through a carrier that shows up 5+ months late to the fight.” 

Devil in the details

Making sure public safety officials have access to the mobile network during emergencies is, of course, of utmost importance. But the details in T-Mobile’s plans are slim, according to Rehbehn.

“I find it very confusing and fuzzy about what’s specifically being offered,” he said, adding he has not seen any discussion about 3GPP Release 13 Quality of Service mechanisms that are provided for protecting mission-critical traffic. Instead, there’s a more nebulous promise of “we’re going to treat the data from these users with a higher priority” than others but without details, he said.

Asked if T-Mobile’s program provides first responders with the same level of priority to the service/network as FirstNet, a T-Mobile spokesperson provided the following statement: “Wireless Priority Service (WPS) enrollment is a separate process run through the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). All First Responder voice lines are eligible for WPS. T-Mobile highly recommends that WPS be added for optimum voice performance. Each First Responder organization must sign up with DHS to have a DHS Point of Contact (POC).”

According to public safety and FirstNet advocate Andrew Seybold, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a ruling in April where the GAO determined T-Mobile could not meet public-safety requirements as established in a Request for Qualification issued by the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (an independent federal agency).

Seybold noted T-Mobile’s pre-merger promises that it would offer free 5G network access to first responders. “It turns out Sprint is not willing to offer priority and pre-emption on 5G, which is the foundation of the FirstNet network,” he wrote in a recent commentary. “Without priority and pre-emption, public safety is not guaranteed access to the network when it is being heavily used by commercial users. FirstNet is a separate network with a separate core and FirstNet users do not compete with commercial users on Band 14. This is a good example that ‘free’ does not necessarily mean something meets the needs of the public-safety community.”

Seybold said he finds it "amazing" that commercial carriers who fought public safety for spectrum now want access to the community they claimed didn't need the spectrum.

“AT&T’s successful bid for building FirstNet should have sent a clear message to all these networks that public safety wants and needs a single nationwide broadband network with a single point of contact when problems occur,” Seybold wrote. “Having more than a single organization providing services is not a good idea. Public safety is much too familiar with multi-vendor systems and finger-pointing when something does not work and public safety personnel cannot communicate. A single point of contact is the only option for a system dedicated to critical communications.”