The FirstNet Authority and FirstNet — They’re Not the Same Thing!

By James Careless

Most people understand the difference between Ford (the company that makes Ford cars and trucks) and an actual Ford car or truck. But this same clear distinction doesn’t seem to exist about the FirstNet Authority and FirstNet, with people apparently assuming that one is also the other.

So here goes:

  • The FirstNet Authority is the government agency that runs the nationwide 4G/5G cellular communications network created with and for public safety users across the United States.
  • FirstNet is the name of that network.
  • In other words:
  • The FirstNet Authority is akin to Ford, the car maker.
  • FirstNet is akin to a Ford F150 truck.

To clarify matters further: “The roots of the FirstNet Authority go back to 9/11,” said Michael A. Barnbeck, Deputy Director of the Public Safety Broadband Technology Association (PSBTA). “It was created based on the recommendation from the 9/11 Commission identifying the need for a nationwide public safety broadband network, and was brought into being through the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012. Then and now, the FirstNet Authority is an independent agency within the United States Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). It is the FirstNet Authority that runs the FirstNet public safety network, just like Ford is the company that makes Ford cars and trucks.”

Where AT&T Fits In

If the FirstNet Authority is akin to Ford (the car maker) and FirstNet to a Ford F150, then AT&T (the network carrier) is the construction company that paves the roads that the car runs on. It has been fulfilling this role since March 2017, when the FirstNet Authority awarded a $6.5 billion 25-year competitive contract to AT&T to deploy and manage the FirstNet network.

“This distinction is extremely important because it has been miscommunicated by some within the industry, due to a lack of knowledge or deliberate misrepresentation,” Barnbeck said. “So let’s be very, very clear: AT&T does not own FirstNet. The network is owned by the federal government through the FirstNet Authority, specifically designated for public safety.”   AT&T is accountable to the FirstNet Authority, public safety users, and operates and manages the network for the duration of this contract.

As to what makes FirstNet different from other cellular services? “This network differs from other carriers because it has a fully dedicated public safety core,” replied Barnbeck. “This core is solely dedicated to public safety communications. Meanwhile, since this is a nationwide high speed wireless broadband network, it delivers specialized, innovative tools, technologies, and features specifically built for public safety.”

Show Me the Money!

One other area of confusion associated with FirstNet is how the service is paid for. “There was a dedicated amount of money given to the FirstNet Authority to begin to build the network out along with the private partnership with AT&T,” said Barnbeck. “But since then, no taxpayer dollars have been given to the Authority. Instead, the FirstNet Authority receives a portion of FirstNet user fees to reinvest in the network.”

This reinvestment is substantial, meaning that FirstNet users’ fees are help to make the network better for them. “This last quarter, the FirstNet Authority announced that it will invest more than $8 billion over 10 years to evolve and expand FirstNet, including advances such as 5G,” Barnbeck said.

To date, the money spent on FirstNet has delivered some solid returns. “Since we went live in 2017, there are more first responders that use FirstNet than any other network,” he said. “Specifically, FirstNet has over 2.97 million square miles in coverage with 28,000 agencies subscribed and 5.9 million connections on the network.” And remember, these numbers refer to the FirstNet network; not the FirstNet Authority, nor AT&T.

Don’t Let Anyone Confuse You

As Michael Barnbeck pointed, there is some confusion in public safety circles about the distinctions between the FirstNet Authority, FirstNet, and AT&T. Some of this confusion is due to a lack of knowledge — understandable given how similar the two names are — while some of it is due to misrepresentation of the situation due to a range of motivations.

It is not the mission of to dig into these motivations. But it is our job to set the record straight, so that all our readers know what the unvarnished honest facts are.

So, to use the Ford analogy for one last time — we promise! — FirstNet is the car, the FirstNet Authority is the car maker, and AT&T is the road builder. AT&T does not own the FirstNet Authority; the American people do. And FirstNet is not run to turn a profit for private business, but to give our first responders the reliable wireless broadband communications they need and deserve — 24/7/365, and from coast to coast.


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