AT&T plans to complete at least 40% of its committed deployment of the FirstNet nationwide public-safety broadband network (NPSBN) within a year as part an overall buildout strategy that is designed to let the carrier giant ultimately make the leap to 5G via software upgrades, according to AT&T executives.

As FirstNet’s nationwide contractor, AT&T is obligated complete initial construction of the NPSBN—including deployment of 700 MHz Band 14 spectrum licensed to FirstNet that covers 95% of the U.S. population—by March 2022. FirstNet will pay AT&T as it meets NPSBN deployment milestones, with overall payments totaling $6.5 billion when scheduled buildout is completed.

Although deployment did not begin in earnest until states finalized opt-in decisions in December, officials for both FirstNet and AT&T repeatedly have indicated that NPSBN construction is proceeding ahead of pace.

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson and AT&T CFO John Stephens reiterated the accelerated pace of the FirstNet buildout last week during the Wells Fargo Securities 2018 Telecom 5G Forum.

“We’ve got FirstNet. We’ve got spectrum that we’re putting to use. We’ve got the FirstNet Authority helping us build those networks,” Stephens said during the forum, which was webcast. “Through this year and into next year, we’ll have made significant progress—probably over 50% of that buildout complete in that area.”

A subsequent AT&T press release about the Wells Fargo event stated that “within the next year, [AT&T] expects to be in the 40% to 50% range of its FirstNet buildout commitment.”

As AT&T builds the FirstNet system, the carrier will deploy equipment to support Band 14 operations at the same time that it also deploys gear to enable operations on 20 MHz swaths of spectrum in the WCS and AWS-3 bands licensed to AT&T.

In addition, all AT&T cell sites will be upgraded during the FirstNet buildout to software-defined equipment that will position the carrier for a smooth migration from 4G to 5G, Stephens said.

“When we come back with 5G, it will be a software upgrade,” Stephens said. “It won’t be the extensive capital spend that we’ve seen when we went from 2G to 3G or from 3G to 4G. Because of these investments that we’ve made over the years, this capital efficiency will be seen into the future.”

Stephenson said that this aggressive buildout plan—accelerated by a more favorable corporate tax rate that was approved last year—incorporating FirstNet has been part of the company long-term capital strategy.

“We went after the FirstNet aggressively,” Stephenson said during the forum. “We said, back in 2016, that [FirstNet] was a must-win for AT&T. Because, to build out this FirstNet capability, this first-responder network, we have to climb every cell tower. Literally, we have to touch every cell tower over the next couple of years.

“As we’re touching those cell towers—every single one of them—we have a lot of spectrum in inventory. We’ll be lighting that spectrum up as we touch each cell tower. But the other thing … is that we’ll be equipping every single cell site for 5G. When 5G is ready to go—when it’s ready for primetime—our turn up for 5G is a software load. It’s a software upgrade.”