FirstNet ‘primarily’ being used for voice communications to date, AT&T exec says
Most FirstNet public-safety subscribers are using their broadband connectivity to support voice communications, and AT&T is utilizing the installation of gear to support operations on the 700 MHz Band 14 spectrum licensed to FirstNet to help prepare the carrier’s introduction of 5G services next year, according to an AT&T executive.
AT&T President of Operations Scott Mair made the statements last week during the Barclays Global Technology Media and Telecommunications Broker Conference, where he also reiterated the importance of the FirstNet deployment in the carrier’s overall network plans.
But the first priority for AT&T and FirstNet is ensuring that first responders have the broadband connectivity they need, Mair said.
“We at AT&T are really, really proud to serve the first-responder community, … and they do important work,” Mair said during the conference, which was webcast. “When disasters happen, performance and connectivity really matters.”
This philosophy has been reinforced during responses to multiple hurricanes and wildfires this year, which have served as “proof points” about the robust nature of the FirstNet offering, Mair said.
“During … hurricanes Florence and Michael, and then also the wildfires in northern and southern California, our network performed really, really well—we’re very proud of it,” he said. “In fact, we opened up our network for others, as well. Because in times of crisis, connectivity matters, and we put all the other things aside.”
Mair reiterated previously reported adoption figures that more than 3,600 agencies subscribe to FirstNet, representing more than 250,000 connections. However, while most public-safety representatives have touted FirstNet as a data-centric offering, Mair said that FirstNet connections are being used primarily for voice communications.
“So far, we’ve got 3,600 agencies that have already signed onto FirstNet and over 250,000 lines,” Mair said. “Primarily, those are voice lines at this point. IoT will come because there’s going to be a lot of IoT [Internet of Things] applications. But right now, it’s primarily voice that we’re seeing, and we’re getting a lot of feedback.”
As FirstNet was established, most public-safety representatives predicted that first responders primarily would utilize the nationwide public-safety broadband network (NPSBN) for its data connectivity, but an AT&T spokesperson today confirmed that the majority of connections to date have been focused on voice communications, noting that “a significant percentage of the voice devices are coming with Enhanced Push-to-Talk” service. \
AT&T utilizes the Kodiak push-to-talk-over-cellular (PoC) platform to deliver Enhanced Push to Talk. AT&T recently stated that mission-critical-push-to-talk (MCPTT) services would be available to FirstNet users during the second half of next year from multiple vendors that have not been identified publicly yet.
During 2018, AT&T delivered the dedicated public-safety LTE core network for FirstNet and was six months early in meeting its goal to deploy FirstNet’s 20 MHz of Band 14 spectrum to 33% of the planned buildout, according to Mair.
When deploying Band 14 spectrum at a cell site, AT&T has its crews also deploy gear needed to support operations on 20 MHz of WCS airwaves and another 20 MHz of AWS-3 spectrum, multiple AT&T officials have stated in recent years. This effort will result in a 50% increase in the spectrum capacity of the overall AT&T network from the end of 2016 to the end of 2019, according to Mair.
“The beautiful thing around FirstNet is it’s really a reason to go touch the towers,” Mair said. “And so as we’re touching the towers, we’re implementing what we call our 5G Evolution program. And what that means is, when we touch a tower, we’re actually upgrading that tower. We’re putting a lot of spectrum to work.”
It also lets AT&T lay the groundwork for 5G, Mair said.
“The capability we’re putting up on the tower is really one that leverages LTE advanced capabilities. And what that means is carrier aggregation, improved modulation techniques and 4×4 MIMO. All yield a much better experience for our customers. In fact, those towers will support 400 megabit-per-second peak speeds. And I always like to say—kind of a rule of thumb—10% to 20% of that is what an average customer will see, so 40 to 80 megabits per second is the experience.
“We’ll have that complete in 400 markets by the end of this year, over 175 million people. And we’ll be nationwide next year—by the middle of the year—in 500-plus markets. So that FirstNet trigger then allows us to go touch the towers, put those capabilities up and really, really improve the experience for our customer base.”
When asked whether Mair’s comment meant that Band 14 spectrum would be deployed at the same pace as 5G Evolution, an AT&T spokesperson today informed IWCE’s Urgent Communications that such an interpretation would not be accurate.
“The progression of one network technology can’t be conflated with the progression of another,” according to a statement provided by the AT&T spokesperson. “The FirstNet Band 14 build is a multi-year build that is ahead of schedule, and we plan to stay ahead of schedule in 2019 as we continue to roll out Band 14 nationwide.”
IWCE’s Urgent Communications also sought clarification whether AT&T crews would need to revisit cell sites that had been upgraded with 5G Evolution equipment to install gear that would support Band 14 operations, but a response to that inquiry was not received in time to be included in this article.
While AT&T has made significant progress enabling Band 14 services at the carrier’s existing cell sites to expand capacity, most new FirstNet-related cell sites—the sites that are designed to expand AT&T’s coverage footprint, which is a focal point for many public-safety agencies—are not expected to be deployed until 2019 and beyond. AT&T officials have said.
In addition, next year is expected to mark the commercial availability of Band 14 high-powered user equipment, which promises to significantly expand the effective coverage for first responders at the edges of the FirstNet system, according to AT&T officials.