T-Mobile boosts its first-responder service; but why?

Even though AT&T is running the table on the first-responder market in the U.S. because it won the contract to build the FirstNet network, that doesn’t mean that the other two big carriers don’t still desire to serve first responders.

Today, T-Mobile announced that first responders who are signed up with its Connecting Heroes program can have their data prioritized in the event of emergencies, via its Wireless Priority Service (WPS), which is part of Connecting Heroes.*

T-Mobile says the new data priority service was developed in collaboration with the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

During times of emergency or network congestion, critical communication is prioritized across a first responder’s smartphone or other mobile device. During these times, T-Mobile commits available network resources to help maintain a minimum performance of 512 kbps. This means, if a first responder is in a situation where a natural disaster may impact service, T-Mobile will give network resources to them first. Similarly, if a first responder is using data in a low-coverage area, the network will automatically reallocate resources to help maintain that critical connection.

Recon Analytics principal Roger Entner said one thing that distinguishes AT&T’s FirstNet is that it has a completely separate core network, which provides not just priority but preemption of network resources for first responders. Preemption means non-emergency traffic is kicked off to clear up the network for critical communications.

T-Mobile has previously said it offers preemption for certain qualified agencies, but today’s announcement related to DHS only mentions priority.


Jason Porter, president of Public Sector and FirstNet at AT&T, said, "FirstNet is the only network that gives first responders always-on, 24-hours-a-day priority and preemption across voice, text and data. This exceeds anything available to public safety. Built with and for public safety, FirstNet puts public safety in the driver’s seat, providing multiple priority levels that first responders can allocate as needed."

According to T-Mobile’s Connecting Heroes website, it provides its first responder service of unlimited talk, text and data for free to eligible agencies.

Why would T-Mobile try to jump into the first responder’s game late and offer the service for free?

Entner said there’s nothing but upside for the carrier.

“T-Mobile has been very clever about segmenting the market and looking at the segments where it is not present in a significant way,” he said. “They focused on the over-55 segment because they skewed very young. They didn’t have access to the military community, and so they did this promo for the military. Here is another segment where they identified they’re under represented.”

He said they could garner some subscribers if agencies sign up for the program and then individual first responders decide to switch their families to T-Mobile. He added, “It’s nice to get the endorsement of the DHS.”

T-Mobile did not respond to a question asking how many subscribers it has for Connecting Heroes.

Verizon and first responders

The heavyweight in the first responder business is AT&T. Entner said, “They’re adding 300,000 customers every quarter. They’re switching from Verizon. This is like a trend that is pretty under reported.”

He said Verizon used to have about 95% of the first responder market because the carrier was viewed as having the best network. But since FirstNet, that is rapidly shifting toward AT&T.

However, in a recent interview with Fierce, Verizon Business’ new CEO Sowmyanarayan Sampath said Verizon still has the biggest share of the public safety market “by a country mile.” He said, “We have very deep operational relationships with these agencies,” such as when they need extra capacity. “Despite a lot of talk about others taking share, I don’t see it on a day-to-day basis.”

*Update 8/2/2022: After publication of this story, T-Mobile wanted to make this comment:

"WPS is a Federal program administered by the Cybersecurity Infrastructure and Security Administration (CISA) that many government and commercial users, including first responders, enroll in separately. Many of our Connecting Heroes customers are already enrolled in WPS via the CISA Help Desk, so they’ll get automatic data priority and preemption status for free, and there are no extra steps to enroll."