AT&T plans to employ hardening approaches such as “bunkering” and “redundant perpetual backup power” within the FirstNet nationwide public-safety broadband network (NPSBN) to prevent the type of cell-site outages being experienced in Florida as a result of Hurricane Irma, according to AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson.

Stephenson made the statement about AT&T’s commitment to reliability on the FirstNet system during a session at the Goldman Sachs Communacopia Brokers Conference. AT&T was awarded the contract to build and maintain the FirstNet NPSBN in March.

“The requirements of the [nationwide FirstNet] bid are that you build a nationwide … wireless network and you fill in the white zones—the areas of the United States where there is not good coverage—you fill that in, and you harden these networks,” Stephenson said today during the conference, which was webcast.

“Think of bunkering in Florida … and think of redundant perpetual backup power in a place like Florida. Today, because of Irma, 25% of our cell sites are down. Virtually all of that is because of a lack of power. We can't get people in to fuel generators, because the roads are not open. So, think about a hardened network, where you don't have this kind of situation occur, even in the most significant disasters, like we are seeing with Irma.”

AT&T did not respond to communications from IWCE’s Urgent Communications seeking more information about what FirstNet hardening through the use of “bunkering” and “redundant perpetual backup power” would entail—and how widespread the practices would be—in time to be included in this article.

AT&T’s commitment to hardening the FirstNet system has been a topic of repeated questions during the past several weeks. Last month, the National Public-Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) last Friday criticized assertions by Chris Sambar—senior vice president of AT&T – FirstNet—that a definition of “public-safety-grade” systems does not exist, despite NPSTC publishing a 115-page document on the matter that is expected to published as a standard in the spring.

Sambar apologized to NPSTC officials for the comments during an in-person presentation to the organization last week, noting that NPSTC did a “great job” in forming its public-safety-grade definition.

“In addition to commending you on your work, I’m going to apologize on comments that I made that may have been misleading or may have made anyone … think that AT&T was not 100% committed to public safety and to fulfilling public-safety grade as FirstNet has delivered it to us,” Sambar said. “And, when I say ‘as FirstNet has delivered it to us,’ that was informed by the work that NPSTC, APCO, the PSAC—all of them—did together over a number of years prior to the RFP ever being released.

“So, I want to make that commitment to all of you, in addition to the apology. If my comments misled or concern anyone, please know that we are absolutely 100% committed.”

However, later in the NPSTC meeting, Sambar said that "it’s not reasonable to think that every single tower will be at the same level of public-safety grade."

Under the law that established FirstNet, governors in all 56 states and territories have the choice of making an “opt-in” decision—accepting the FirstNet deployment plan and allowing AT&T to build the LTE radio access network (RAN) within the state’s borders at no cost to the state—or pursuing the “opt-out” alternative, which would require the state to be responsible for building and maintaining the RAN for the next 25 years.

To date, governors in 18 states and two territories have announced “opt-in” decisions—a “brisk pace,” Stephenson said.