No network provides coverage in all locations, but the Emergency Drop Kit announced yesterday by AT&T soon will let FirstNet users take network connectivity with them virtually anywhere, providing a 300-foot-radius Wi-Fi “bubble” supported by backhaul that can switch seamlessly between satellite and LTE connections.

Packaged in a carrying case, the 25-pound Emergency Drop Kit includes four Sonim XP8 devices, a Cradlepoint router that provides the Wi-Fi bubble—and an LTE link to the FirstNet system, if available—and an Inmarsat satellite link for backhaul when the FirstNet LTE system is not available. The package includes enough battery to support 12 hours of communications with these devices without a charge.

AT&T and other wireless carriers traditionally have supported first responders with deployable cell-on-wheels (CoW) or cell-on-light-truck (CoLT) solutions, but those can take hours or days to set up, and they often cannot reach locations in difficult environments. The Emergency Drop Kit is an ideal solution for the first units arriving at a scene where communications infrastructure has been decimated, such as in the aftermath of a hurricane or wildfire, according to Chris Sambar, senior vice president for AT&T-FirstNet.

“When a natural or man-made disaster happens, for the first people that show up, there’s usually no way for them to communicate with anybody else,” Sambar said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications.

“That’s the challenge: Somebody shows up, they see what’s wrong, they triage, and then they need to tell somebody what going on and what they need, but they can’t do it—they’ve got to drive somewhere they can get a connection and tell people. This allows them to bring a connection with them, so they and a handful of other people can call in the cavalry right away.”

Fred Scalera, director of public-safety strategy and policy for AT&T-FirstNet, noted that the Emergency Drop Kit is designed to be deployed quickly by a first responder, without the need for an engineering background.

“Any public-safety person, in minutes, can drop this kit, set it up and be live [with communications], with no special knowledge,” Scalera said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “It’s a very basic, easy-to-operate, easy-to-deploy, for-an-emergency system.”

While the Emergency Drop Kit includes a satellite-backhaul option, the Cradlepoint router will link with a FirstNet LTE site, if available, according to Ryan Fields-Speck, AT&T’s director of public-safety strategy and policy.

“The uniqueness of this device is that it’s satellite-enabled,” Fields-Speck said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “So, when the network is totally out—from a hurricane, wildfire, etc.—this will work, no matter what.

“As soon as our CoLT pulls up and we have higher bandwidth available, it will immediately and automatically switch over to the LTE network, and we can continue that service and provide it with the Cradlepoint modem that’s in there.”

Until LTE connectivity is available, the initial first responders can deploy multiple Emergency Drop Kits in a daisy-chain configuration to expand the Wi-Fi communications between each other at an incident scene. In addition to being used in remote locations or disaster areas, this functional can be leveraged to establish coverage inside buildings or in other challenging situations, Scalera said.

AT&T is working to develop other solutions and capabilities that take advantage of the four power-over-Ethernet ports in the Emergency Drop Kit, including the potential integration of technologies that would extend the range of the communications “bubble,” according to Scalera.

“It all builds off of this [the Emergency Drop Kit],” he said. “You’ll be able to do additions to it as we go forward.”

Sambar, Scalera and Fields-Speck all noted that the Emergency Drop Kit—something that is not a requirement under the FirstNet-AT&T contract—was developed after AT&T received input from first responders about their communications needs in the field.  

“[Sonim, Cradlepoint and Inmarsat] are trusted, verified and vetted on their own,” Fields-Speck said. “We’re taking them and packaging them up into a verifiable product that people can use.”

“This is innovation at a new level that is only coming out of the FirstNet realm, because we’re listening to public safety—what they want, what they need. This is just the beginning of the cool stuff that’s going to come out of the shop of FirstNet, and we’re working on that every day.”

AT&T expects to have the Emergency Drop Kit commercially available by the end of the year, Fields-Speck said.