AT&T already is deploying cell sites that operate on the 700 MHz Band 14 spectrum licensed to FirstNet and expects to finish the buildout—covering 95% of the U.S. population—well before the contracted five-year contract period expires in most cases, according to the AT&T executive heading the project.

Under federal procurement rules, AT&T—named last March as FirstNet’s nationwide contractor—cannot get paid for its deployment work until it receives the network task order from FirstNet, said Chris Sambar, AT&T’s senior vice president for FirstNet. But the telecom giant is not letting the absence of a task order slow its Band 14 deployment efforts, he said.

“We’re not waiting—no way,” Sambar said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “We know what needs to be done, and we know that public safety needs this now. They’ve been waiting a long time, so let’s get it done quickly for them … The bottom line is that we’re getting the work done now, and we’re going to turn it up as soon as we can.

“With Band 14, we’ve already started the work, putting it up on towers across the U.S. As you recall, we have five years to put it up, … but we’re going to move a lot faster than that, because we want to get it up sooner rather than later.”

When asked whether AT&T could complete the FirstNet Band 14 buildout in three years instead of the contracted five-year period, Sambar said he is not sure whether that is feasible, given the difficulties faced in getting local-government approval to add antennas or build new sites in certain locations.

“I think we’ll still probably have towers that will take the full five years, but I think the vast majority of [the Band 14 deployment] is going to get done well before that,” Sambar said. “I wouldn’t say that we’re going to get it done in three years, but I’d say that people are going to be really pleased with the progress and how quickly we’re getting it done.

“[FirstNet CEO] Mike Poth has said it a number of times: ‘We’re almost a year into this, and AT&T has delivered everything either on time or ahead of schedule.’ We’re going to stick to that, and we plan to deliver a lot of that ahead of schedule.”

Sambar reiterated AT&T’s plans to complete its dedicated FirstNet public-safety core by the end of March. When the FirstNet core is operational, all FirstNet public-safety traffic will be processed through the FirstNet core, no matter which spectrum band is used to access the network.

“Preemption and priority is already on our commercial core,” Sambar said. “By the end of March, we’ll have our FirstNet core, and then all first responders will be moved or, with the new signups, will be on that FirstNet core with preemption and priority—always on, 24/7/365.”

AT&T officials have stated repeatedly that the carrier plans to install gear that will let it operate on 20 MHz of WCS airwaves and 20 MHz of AWS-3 spectrum at every location where it deploys equipment to support operation on the 20 MHz of Band 14 spectrum that is licensed to FirstNet.

Last year, Sambar told Congress that AT&T plans to deploy Band 14 only in locations where the carrier needs additional network capacity---a condition that exists in a large portion of the country. Band 14 will be deployed on “tens of thousands of towers,” according to an AT&T press release.

“95% of the American population will be covered by Band 14,” Sambar said. “People were giving us a hard time, saying, ‘You’re not putting [Band 14 equipment] on every tower; you’re skipping some areas.’ And we said, ‘No. In all of the populated areas we’re [deploying Band 14], and it ends up being 95% of the population.

“There’s thousands of towers that won’t get it [Band 14 coverage], which—if you think about how a network is built out—makes sense, right? There are rural areas where there’s already capacity, and you don’t need to add another spectrum band. But the vast majority of Americans will have Band 14 access.”