AT&T exec says Band 14 spectrum makes FirstNet superior

Scott Agnew, AT&T’s Assistant Vice President for FirstNet, said one of the main reasons he considers FirstNet superior to other first responder wireless services is because of its dedicated Band 14 spectrum.

He said the FirstNet Authority, which owns FirstNet, provided AT&T with Band 14 spectrum to deploy the network. “We have a specific number of towers for Band 14 across the nation,” said Agnew. “Although we have priority and preemption on all our bands, in the worst cases, that lane is dedicated to public safety.”

Another benefit of Band 14 is that it allows for high-power user equipment in Band 14, enabling signals to travel much farther from the tower.

Agnew said the deployment of FirstNet across the nation is about 95% complete.

Earlier this week, AT&T said FirstNet has 3.7 million connections, serving more than 21,800 police and fire departments and other agencies and organizations dedicated to public safety. In its earnings calls, AT&T has been reporting about 300,000 new FirstNet subscribers per quarter.

Maggie Hallbach, senior vice president of Verizon Public Sector, told Fierce this week that Verizon Frontline has 5.1 million connected devices and more than 30,000 public safety agency customers.

Hallbach questioned whether AT&T's numbers were inflated because it defines “first responder” much more widely than Verizon. She said Verizon classifies first responders via the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS). Verizon uses only 18 NAICS codes to determine if a subscriber qualifies as a first responder for its Frontline program.

Agnew responded that AT&T doesn’t use NAICS codes at all.

He said AT&T worked with the FirstNet Authority to create two categories of users: Primary users and Extended Primary users. The Primary category includes first responders such as law enforcement, fire services and emergency management personnel such as EMT's and other medical providers.

The Extended Primary category includes organizations that support public safety in times of crisis. “We did this in concert with the Authority,” said Agnew. This category includes such organizations as utility companies and departments of transportation, for example. And public safety agencies can makes decisions themselves about who gets heightened control in certain circumstances.

Public safety ecosystem expands

Both Agnew and Verizon’s Hallbach said the public safety market is expanding because so many more devices are being connected.

Hallbach cited devices such as mobile data terminals in police cruisers and sensors in ambulances and fire trucks. “The use cases are extensive,” she said. “We’re seeing a lot of organic growth in public safety.”

Other than organic growth, AT&T’s healthy quarterly additions must be coming from Verizon, T-Mobile or smaller wireless carriers.

T-Mobile this week announced that first responders who are signed up with its Connecting Heroes program can have their data prioritized in the event of emergencies, via the Wireless Priority Service (WPS), which is a Federal program administered by the Cybersecurity Infrastructure and Security Administration (CISA).

But it’s not clear if T-Mobile has a lot of first responder customers. The carrier must include them in its consumer wireless numbers because it doesn’t break them out separately. T-Mobile did not respond to a request asking how many subscribers it has for Connecting Heroes.

Of subscribers to FirstNet, Agnew said only, “We see a lot of these customers are new customers to AT&T that are coming in from consumer wireless network providers and moving to a public safety network.”

Other benefits of FirstNet

Agnew, of course, thinks FirstNet is the best network for first responders. In addition to its Band 14 spectrum, he said priority and preemption is better on FirstNet “because it's always on and connected; there’s nothing you need to do.” He said for voice priority on consumers networks, emergency responders must dial *272. But FirstNet is always connected and “every single packet is prioritized.”

He also touted FirstNet’s dedicated core network, which is physically separate from AT&T’s consumer core network. This compares to Verizon, which has a logically separate core, meaning that its functions run on separate software than its consumer core.

Agnew said, “Logical is a partition of the commercial core. When you’re building priority and preemption you’re bound to the capacities of that core. When you have a dedicated physically separated core, functionality is unlimited."

In his opinion a physically separated core is also better for security, because it completely cordons off the emergency responder users.