FirstNet and other wireless carriers are competing for public safety’s business. What are the actual differences?

In March of 2017, Department of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced that AT&T had been selected as FirstNet’s partner to build, operate and maintain the first high-speed, nationwide wireless broadband network dedicated to public safety. On September 19, 2017, Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced that Texas was opting-in to the network deployment plan offered by FirstNet.

Almost immediately, FirstNet/AT&T began a secondary outreach effort, describing the plans and solutions offered to the public safety community. In essence, AT&T’s plan accelerated public safety’s access to the network by years. By utilizing its existing LTE networks, AT&T was able to provide priority service to its current public safety customers from the start. Shortly after, AT&T added preemption service to the offering, and in March of this year the carrier rolled out its unique LTE enhanced packet core for public safety.

Since that time, FirstNet has continued to grow, as new sites continue to be built, new devices become FirstNet-certified, and network features continue to evolve.

In the meantime, commercial carriers have been actively competing for public safety’s business, enhancing their own networks’ coverage, offering competitive pricing, and advertising various public safety-focused services, including priority access. This has left many people wondering what the true differences are between FirstNet and existing carriers.

FirstNet vs Commercial Wireless Networks: Features and Capabilities

Access to FirstNet’s 20 MHz of LTE spectrum dedicated for public safety use (Band 14) 

FirstNet/AT&T has exclusive access to this spectrum. Additionally, FirstNet users also have access across all AT&T networks/bands.

Dedicated stand-alone LTE enhanced packet network core specifically for public safety

The FirstNet/AT&T Band 14 core is unique to FirstNet. The core will serve as the foundation for an entire public safety ecosystem and will provide administrators with real-time information pertaining to the network’s status and operations.

Other carriers may establish a dedicated core – either stand-alone or virtual – but they will not be utilizing Band 14 dedicated spectrum and will not necessarily share in the broader FirstNet/AT&T ecosystem.

Always-on priority service and “ruthless preemption” for data  

Priority and preemption are key components and two of the most appealing aspects of FirstNet to the public safety community. Other carriers may offer a priority level of data service, however, as noted above, these carriers will not be utilizing the Band 14 dedicated spectrum.

The wireless services available to consumers represent a rapidly evolving set of technologies, and we recommend that agencies obtain detailed technical and policy briefings from any carriers that they are considering.

Local control of user priority levels and network status through a secure portal 

Agencies and departments that subscribe to FirstNet/AT&T service will have access to the FirstNet’s online portal. The portal will offer a wide range of functionalities, including the ability to monitor the network’s status, set or change individual priority levels (including uplifting extended primary users), and other functions. To date, no other carrier is offering this service.

Dedicated Band Class 14 deployables for public safety use

FirstNet has already delivered over two dozen Satellite Cellular on Light Truck (SatCOLT) deployable assets that have Band 14 capabilities. Ultimately, the network will strategically locate 72 SatCOLTs in the US. All the underlying expenses directly associated with the FirstNet deployables (i.e., fueling, staffing, backhaul charges, etc.) are included, meaning the deployables are available at no cost to public safety. Additionally, subscribing agencies can request the assets at no cost to support various scenarios, from disasters and critical incidents to planned events.

Governance/oversight by the FirstNet Authority, assuring performance expectations and milestones are met 

Other carriers are bound to various aspects of performance and service as prescribed by governing entities, such as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). However, the FirstNet Authority requirements are incorporated into the AT&T contract, and the Authority has recourse if the requirements are not met. A number of milestones and performance objectives are incorporated in the contract award to AT&T. The carrier is responsible for meeting these milestones and objectives, and the FirstNet Authority is closely monitoring its performance. The FirstNet Authority will also serve as an advocacy resource for public safety subscribers. This will ensure that public safety subscribers receive a level of performance and service that meets the FirstNet Authority’s requirements and expectations.

24/7/365 US-based customer care dedicated specifically to public safety users  

While other carriers offer various levels of customer support, the FirstNet service is a unique and public safety-specific service. As part of its agreement with the FirstNet Authority, AT&T provides a customer care/support service which is available 24/7/365 and offers voice, chat and email options. This is a US-based call center staffed with personnel who are well-versed in FirstNet’s services, apps and portal functionalities.

Summary

In short, an apples-to-apples comparison between FirstNet and commercial carriers can be difficult to make. Networks and their features are constantly growing, and the development of FirstNet has encouraged increased competition between the major wireless carriers. This competition should ultimately benefit public safety, but it is important that agencies understand some of the underlying details in order to make an informed decision.

Why FirstNet is Important

FirstNet was built from the ground up as a public safety network, and thousands of public safety professionals around the country and US territories have had a say in the development and deployment of a concept that is revolutionizing public safety communication.

While addressing a conference of public safety leaders, a police chief recently asked this question of his audience: “With the wireless technologies available to us today, why is public safety still using a “party line” for data communication?” Many of the younger members of the audience didn’t understand the question. What the chief was referring to was a bygone era in which several household telephone customers, especially in rural areas, would share a single phone line. Only one customer at a time could access the line, though the law required that a user yield the line in an emergency.

Wireless data usage, especially with smartphones and tablets, has skyrocketed in recent years. Network congestion, particularly around large events and incidents, deprives first responders and other public safety professionals of the bandwidth and capacity they need to operate safely and efficiently. FirstNet takes those professionals off the “party line,” and provides them with a dedicated, secure platform for communication.

Written by 

Randy Dickson is a former law enforcement officer and EMT. He has worked in training, consulting and outreach and education roles within the public safety community for the past 19 years. He joined the outreach and education team of the Texas Public Safety Broadband Program in 2013.

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