Public Safety Advocate: FirstNet; By the Numbers; SBC/FirstNet/FNA Inbuilding Communications

We recently celebrated the 10-year anniversary of the signing of the law that created FirstNet. I think this might be a good time to look back at FirstNet (Built with AT&T) and see what AT&T has accomplished in only a little more than the five years since it was awarded the build, operate, and maintain contract from the FirstNet Authority (FNA). 

During the first five years of the 25-year contract (the “build” portion), there was at least one task for AT&T to complete every six months. Some tasks had to do with Band 14 build-out and some with device and application certifications. Then there was 3GPP-compliant Push-To-Talk (3GPP PTT), and finally, AT&T had to meet or exceed the number of FirstNet users on the network that is specified in the contract. AT&T received a partial payment from the FirstNet Authority. If it did not meet a deadline, in some cases, AT&T was required to pay a penalty to the FNA. I do not believe there has been any other wireless broadband network built in the United States that had a mandatory completion date and required penalties to be paid for each six-month task that was not completed. Look around and you will see that the Dish Network, for example, has finally launched its 5G network in Las Vegas, much later than promised. 

Networks are tough to build out. They take a huge amount of design and engineering pre-work, then cell site locations have to be acquired and contracts signed for existing cell sites or permits applied for in the case of new sites.

Yes, AT&T started with its own broadband network that was up and running, and it welcomed public safety to start using its network as soon as the contract was signed. However, in meeting with the states and discussing coverage requirements for each state and territory, AT&T committed to adding cell sites in order to better meet states’ coverage requirements. Even after all this was agreed to, AT&T built out more public-safety Band 14 sites than called for and most of them include at least one portion of AT&T’s existing network, which provides additional coverage AT&T determined was needed or an agency had requested.  

To my knowledge, FirstNet (Built with AT&T) not only met all six-month milestones, in most cases it beat them. 

AT&T had an advantage, just as any network that bid on and won the contract would have had. It already had a nationwide broadband network running on multiple portions of the radio spectrum. (FYI, none of the other wireless broadband operators bid on the contract.) However, in some cases, adding Band 14 to an existing site required new antennas and possibly new back-up power and a number of different elements that make up a functional cell site. For AT&T to accomplish as much as it has in only five years took a lot of planning, hard work, and money. 

Even though we receive updates on the network’s progress every few months, I thought it would be interesting to look at exactly how FirstNet has grown over this period of time.

To put this in perspective, while the network was being built, AT&T convinced a number of device vendors to add Band 14 to their devices and worked with many applications providers to certify their applications for use on FirstNet. These include a number of push-to-talk applications and the release of a 3GPP-standard PTT platform. Vendors built a separate set of network cores (brains) for FirstNet users, and made sure the backhaul (the microwave fiber that connects each cell site to the core) had different paths for AT&T commercial users and FirstNet users. 

Over the past five years, AT&T, like the rest of us, had to deal with Covid, which delayed much of the work, receiving permits, and a number of issues that needed to be resolved in order for a single cell site, let alone thousands of sites, to be turned on and made operational.

FirstNet has also added new product offerings and certified others that give public safety more access to the network, better data speeds, more than 100 deployables, and a lot more. 

The agency growth graphs below indicate there were other factors that attracted new agencies to FirstNet. For example, when Covid took hold in the U.S., people who had worked in office buildings and students who had attended schools began staying at home and working or studying remotely. There was some concern about Internet loading and whether broadband services could handle the new data demands being placed on it. As these concerns reached a peak, many agencies moved to FirstNet because it has an additional 20 MHz of 700-MHz spectrum (Band 14). While this spectrum can be used by AT&T commercial customers, it can also be reserved for public-safety-only, thus providing yet another safety net for public-safety agencies. 

High-Power User Equipment (MegaRange™)

Agencies with certified High-Power User Equipment (HPUE) vehicular (for now) systems experience extended range of Band-14 cells and increased data speeds up to the network. Finally, many agencies had been waiting for FirstNet coverage to be built out in their area to be the extent they felt was needed. All of these factors and more contributed to the fast growth of user numbers on FirstNet (Built with AT&T).

FirstNet Timeline

Before we explore numbers, let’s look at some important dates we should at least be aware of.

  • Date of award of contract to AT&T: March 30, 2017
    • AT&T started offering service, including priority and pre-emption, to any agency that wanted it, even before all the states opted in.
  • Final Day for States and Territories to opt-in to FirstNet: December 29, 2017             
    • All fifty states, all territories, and the District of Columbia had opted-in to FirstNet.
  • FirstNet Band 14 buildout starts
    • Even though states opted into FirstNet, that did not mean every agency in that state was required to join FirstNet. That decision was left to each individual agency. 
  •  AT&T started deploying Band 14 into the network: July 20, 2018
  • FirstNet (Built with AT&T) announcement: February 18, 2022
    • FirstNet Band-14 sites are in place and operational.

While all this build-out and device and application certifications were going on, many public-safety agencies were joining FirstNet. See the following graphs provided by the Public Safety Broadband Technology Association (PSBTA).

These two graphs illustrate how quickly agencies came to the decision to join FirstNet and I expect this growth curve to continue its upward climb every month as more agencies switch to FirstNet. In support of this growth, neither the FirstNet Authority nor FirstNet (Built with AT&T) have any plans to stop building out the network and adding more features and functions.

Inbuilding FirstNet Service

While FirstNet is making great progress in outdoor coverage, there are still a number of issues with inbuilding coverage. Over the years, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has been persistent in its efforts to return some semblance of order to inbuilding communications, which have been left to local and state jurisdictions. There are many ways to provide inbuilding communications. For example, there are Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) that include commercial cellular as well as public safety, but these systems are a mess today. Each city, county, or state can have different inbuilding requirements and in each jurisdiction there may be different or even no government organizations that have authority over inbuilding systems. 

A number of years ago, the interference inbuilding systems can create was one of the issues with inbuilding communications that led to the establishment of the Safer Buildings Collation (SBC). The SBC has been looking into this and other issues. As a result, it formed the No-Noise Taskforce, which is hard at work looking for and suggesting solutions. 

Then, at the IWCE 2022 conference, AT&T announced an agreement with SBC to work together to solve many of the issues, at least for public safety. 

This was followed last week by an influx of funds from the FirstNet Authority, which is required by law to be both self-sustaining and to reinvest some of the funds it receives from AT&T back into public-safety communications. 

Not long ago, the FNA put money into the additional cost of adding 5G capabilities to the FirstNet core and to fund additional deployables. This time around, the funds will be used for Band 14 inbuilding microcells to provide better, faster, and more consistent deployments.

Of course, there are other companies working on inbuilding communications, of that there is no doubt. Meanwhile, the NFPA is still pushing the efforts along.

The FNA funding for inbuilding communications and how that funding will be used is fairly well covered in its press release and articles that have been written since. I believe the combination of the SBC, FirstNet (Built by AT&T), and the FirstNet Authority is a darn good set of partners to attack and hopefully solve many of the inbuilding coverage issues and to provide public safety with the much-needed inbuilding coverage that will keep first responders safer and enable them to locate and protect citizens.

One more note on inbuilding Band 14. Effective inbuilding communications could become yet another reason for agencies that have not yet joined FirstNet to join the ever-expanding number of agencies that are able to work together no matter where an incident is and, soon, they will have better access to inbuilding public-safety communications.

Winding Down

I had planned to include one more article this week but decided to save it for next week. I will be examining the issues related to how many flavors of Wi-Fi there are now, in which bands they will located, and what the impact will be. For example, the FCC has already opened up the 6-GHz licensed critical communications and other spectrum segments to accommodate more Wi-Fi. Now we are seeing advertisements on television and elsewhere that are trying to pit some of these new Wi-Fi systems against the speed of 5G. Most recently, I read an ad indicating that a certain flavor of Wi-Fi may be coming to a lamp post near you, which sounds a lot like going back in time to recreate the failed Muni-Wi-Fi systems. 

Finally, I think it is important to once again examine the situation of there being multiple types of 5G, some offering only a little bit of increased speed performance over today’s LTE (T-Mobile’s 600-MHz 5G). Then there are the new mid-band systems offering private 5G networks, and other low-band portions of the spectrum currently replacing 3G systems. Finally, 5G will move up to millimeter wave 5G where speeds are in the gigabit range. However, each cell only covers about the area of a football field. And let’s not forget that there will be thousands of Low Earth Orbit satellites (LEOs) as well. 

Competing technologies for both fixed and mobile broadband service are coming or perhaps already being used in some places. And we haven’t even talked about 6G—what it is, and what it will and won’t do. It is important for public safety to be aware of this progression as the landscape becomes even more crowded.

There is still work to do to provide more of what public safety needs beyond a nationwide broadband network. 

Wait! There’s more… While all this is coming our way, what is going on with rural broadband build-outs?

Until next week… 

Andrew M. Seybold
©2022, Andrew Seybold, Inc.


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