AT&T, Verizon spar over public safety interoperability

Natural disasters like wildfires, floods and hurricanes often touch multiple locations, and they almost always involve users of more than one wireless network. How easy is it for first responders on one network to communicate with those on another? The answer may be different in each actual emergency, but public safety officials are pushing carriers to ensure that priority and preemption work across networks. 

Priority means public safety traffic is handled before commercial traffic, so during an emergency a person's calls to relatives might connect more slowly than calls to first responders, or calls between first responders. Network operators can implement different levels of priority, and public safety entities using FirstNet can boost priority levels during a crisis.

Preemption means the blocking of some consumer traffic (exclusive of 911 calls) when there are not enough network resources for first responders. Preemption was promised by AT&T when the carrier won the government's $6.5 billion FirstNet contract in March 2017, and AT&T said it was in place by the end of that year. A year later, Verizon announced that preemption is also available on its public safety network. 

Since then, Verizon has continually advocated for interoperability between its public safety network and FirstNet. The company says that specific public safety applications like push-to-talk and preemption should work when a first responder using one network contacts a responder on the other network. 

"We want the police and fire and EMS, regardless of their underlying network provider, to have pure interoperability around priority level, around preemption level, around mission critical push-to-talk capabilities across networks," said Mike Maiorana, Verizon's SVP for the public sector. He said his team has repeatedly requested meetings with FirstNet to discuss interoperability.

AT&T said in a statement that FirstNet executives have called Verizon to discuss interoperability, and that at this point "there is nothing more to discuss." The company declined to comment on preemption specifically, but noted that it does provide priority access to all public safety traffic, regardless of which network it comes from.

"All traffic to a FirstNet device receives priority regardless of where it comes from (another FirstNet device, another provider, etc.)," an AT&T spokesperson said in a statement. 

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Maiorana said that Verizon has continued to grow its public safety business despite AT&T's FirstNet win, and maintains a very strong presence in the market. He pointed to Verizon's relationship with Axon, a maker of body cameras for police officers, as evidence that vendors still recognize Verizon as an important public safety network provider. (Axon also has a relationship with FirstNet.) Maiorana noted that at the end of the day, both Verizon and FirstNet are providing public safety services on a nationwide commercial LTE network.

The difference is that FirstNet offers a physically separate core network, and access to this core is something that AT&T seems unlikely to offer Verizon. That presents a challenge for full interoperability. 

However, at least one major public safety customer is committing to both FirstNet and Verizon despite limits on network interoperability. Massachusetts, which opted into FirstNet back in 2017, recently signed a major public safety contract with Verizon which authorizes the carrier to offer public safety devices and services to first responders throughout the state.

"Public safety users responding to major incidents will be able to talk, text, share multimedia and communicate in real-time, regardless of their selected public safety grade wireless carrier, plan or device," Verizon said in a statement describing the agreement. "Verizon has a long history of supporting first responders, and we’re proud to bring our interoperable wireless technology to public safety officials in Massachusetts.”