Public-safety battleground: Verizon, AT&T and the intense fight over FirstNet

Verizon and AT&T are in the midst of rolling out a host of wireless technologies specifically designed for public-safety users like police, firefighters and others—and both are claiming that they are best positioned to address the unique needs of this market.

This brewing battle over the public-safety market spilled into this year’s International Wireless Communications Expo (IWCE) trade show in Orlando, where both carriers laid out their respective positions.

“We are committed to making sure public safety has the applications and other tools you need, on the best network,” said Verizon’s Mike Maiorana, SVP of the company’s public sector, during a keynote presentation, arguing that Verizon covers 400,000 more square miles than AT&T. “And we’re already working with our public-safety customers to build the solutions they need.”

“With FirstNet, first responders finally have a better option than that offered by the incumbent or other commercial providers,” countered Chris Sambar, SVP of AT&T-FirstNet.

During the show, AT&T said it received a green light from the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) to deploy FirstNet’s 20 MHz of the 700 MHz Band 14 spectrum across all 56 U.S. states and territories. And AT&T said that, so far, more than 350 agencies across more than 40 states and territories have already signaled their intention to take advantage of FirstNet services.

The FirstNet push stems from the communications problems that first responders encountered during the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In order to address the situation, the government set aside $6.5 billion and 700 MHz spectrum to create an interoperable, nationwide wireless network for public safety; AT&T won the contract to build out that network in 2017.

AT&T has promised to cover 95% or more of the U.S. population with Band 14 over the next five years. The company is now also offering Band 14-capable devices including the Samsung Galaxy S9/S9+ and the Sonim XP8 and XP5s.

In the near term, AT&T said it will turn on an encrypted, evolved packet network core dedicated to FirstNet users in March. The core will be built on physically separate hardware that “completely separates public safety’s traffic from all commercial traffic.” Among other features, it will allow first responders to receive priority access to the network that can be adjusted on a local basis.

“And as the state RANs are connected to the FirstNet Core, first responders from across the country will be assured that the security of their communications are front of mind,” said FirstNet’s Mike Poth in a IWCE keynote.

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But Verizon, too, has promised to offer its own private core dedicated to public safety in late March, alongside nationwide preemption capabilities and updates to the company’s Wireless Priority Service (WPS), including WPS for VoLTE.

Verizon’s plan to launch preemption capabilities by the end of the month represents a slight delay from the carrier’s initial launch target for the end of 2017. However, a Verizon spokesperson noted that the carrier tested preemption with a number of clients, including the LAPD during the Rose Parade, starting in late 2017.

For its part, AT&T launched preemption services in December.

And it’s exactly that kind of back-and-forth, tit-for-tat that Verizon and AT&T likely will engage in during the coming months as they each look to stamp out their public-safety position. For example, both companies are now planning to offer public-safety specific app stores as well as network-deployment services that will allow first responders to build out emergency wireless coverage in specific locations.

“IWCE 2018 clearly reflected the intense rivalry between AT&T and Verizon as they scramble to lock down public-safety agencies. Verizon's moves to counter each FirstNet element offered by AT&T help give its large base of public-safety accounts reasons to delay a shift away to FirstNet,” said Ken Rehbehn, principal analyst at CritComm Insights. “The future, however, will be determined primarily by requirements to access applications limited to operation on the FirstNet core network. Mission-critical push-to-talk may be one of those applications or it may applications related to Department of Justice information management or DHS disaster response. As key applications become available only via FirstNet core, then agencies will be forced to migrate. Until then, coverage, pricing and account relationships will be the dominant factors.”