ORLANDO—Software-based networking advances are creating cost efficiencies and introducing flexible capabilities that let network providers like AT&T develop a service like FirstNet, which is being customized to meet first responders’ needs, according to IWCE 2018 panelists addressing the topic.

Last March, FirstNet named AT&T as its contractor to build, operate and upgrade FirstNet’s nationwide public-safety broadband network (NPSBN). AT&T has expanded the FirstNet concept from a system would operate solely on the 700 MHz Band 14 spectrum licensed to FirstNet to one that leverage Band 14 and more than 100 MHz of AT&T’s commercial airwaves, while providing public-safety users with priority and preemption across all AT&T bands.

This novel proposal means that first-responder entities can subscribe immediately to a FirstNet service that is meaningfully different from a commercial-wireless offering, instead of having to wait years—the time expected to deploy Band 14 services.

One often-overlooked reason why AT&T can implement priority, preemption and other customized public-safety services via the dedicated FirstNet LTE core—scheduled to become operational late this month—is that the telecom giant has been transforming its network from a hardware-based system to software-based technologies. In fact, 55% of AT&T’s network functions had been virtualized by the end of 2017, and the carrier plans to raise that figure to 75% in upcoming years, according to AT&T officials.

AT&T officials repeatedly have noted the tremendous operational and capital cost savings enabled through this software-based approach—leveraging technologies such as network function virtualization (NFV), software-defined networking (SDN) and virtual networking functions (VNF)—as opposed to the traditional hardware-dependent approach to carrier networks. In addition to be cost effective, decoupling the software and hardware functions within the system lets a network operator like AT&T offer more flexible, customized solutions to end users, as is the case with public-safety subscribers on FirstNet.

In fact, it is questionable whether AT&T economically could justify its current FirstNet offering without the cost savings and functional flexibility enabled by these software-centric network advances, according to Rupesh Chokshi, an assistant vice president at AT&T.

“I think it boils down to the financials, or the economics,” Chokshi said during an IWCE 2018 panel. “It would not have been very favorable, if we were trying to do [FirstNet] with old-world technology, because we would not have been able to find enough capital to make those investments, where we know the going-forward technology is going to provide so many more benefits, whether it is cost, flexibility or scale.

“I think the technology has played a very important role. The timing played a very important role, in terms of the fact that we’re at that cusp of seeing real stuff happen, and this was a great opportunity.”

Chokshi said that AT&T began exploring the possibility of using software-based networking capabilities in 2011 and 2012. By decoupling so many hardware and software functions, the carrier does not need as many specialized boxes in the network. Instead, the software-centric functions can be executed on high-powered servers—frequently referenced as “white boxes”—that are readily available and deliver tremendous computing power to networking efforts.

“The idea is to decouple software and hardware, put the software capabilities on multiple virtual machines—we used KVM [kernel-based virtual machine] hypervisors on the white boxer—and then have the ability to serve this chain of traffic that will then provide a very unique differentiation and experience,” Chokshi said.

“And, it gives you a cost savings. You go from two boxes to one, or you go from three boxes to one, and you have a lot of choice and flexibility.”