AT&T exec emphasizes 2018 response efforts during FirstNet board meeting
AT&T has deployed fulfilled 90 requests from FirstNet public-safety subscribers this year—several times more than the carrier fulfilled in its role as a commercial carrier the previous year, the AT&T executive in charge of the FirstNet system told the FirstNet Authority board yesterday.
Chris Sambar, senior vice president, AT&T-FirstNet, said that AT&T established a Response Operations Group earlier this year to coordinate the deployment of network assets in response to public-safety requests for communications support during disasters or large planned events.
“The early impacts have been real, tangible and—at times—life-saving,” Sambar said during the FirstNet Authority board meeting, which was webcast. “We have multiple stories where lives have actually been saved because of the FirstNet platform and its capabilities.”
A key to the Response Operations Group’s success is that it employs a different philosophy than is typical for a commercial carrier, Sambar said, noting that the AT&T FirstNet response efforts do not require any additional costs to public safety.
“The group is designed to work directly with public safety to help guide the deployment of network assets, based on—and this is important—life, safety, incident stabilization and property conservation,” he said. “This isn’t a commercial-network priority anymore. This is shifting of our focus to the same priority that first responders have.
“So, when we go into a crisis, we follow their [public-safety] priorities. And, as we follow their priorities, it gets their service up faster, which—in turn—helps the general populace.”
Since April, AT&T has resolved 90 such requests for public safety—70 in response to emergencies, and 20 for large planned events, such as the Boston Marathon.
“If I were to show you the numbers from last year, these numbers are between four and six times the number of responses that we did as a commercial network last year,” Sambar said. “Now, with the FirstNet program, we’re significantly expanding the number of responses that we’re doing.”
One of AT&T’s key FirstNet milestones this year was the delivery of 72 satellite-equipped cell-on-light-truck (SatCOLTs) solutions, and many of the public-safety requests for communications support are met by deploying these assets. However, Sambar stressed that AT&T personnel evaluate all potential methods to resolve communications issues and do not view the SatCOLTs as the only answer.
“We don’t always drive one of those big one-ton trucks out and pop up an antenna,” Sambar said. “Sometimes, it’s as simple as daisy-chaining multiple routers to a macro site that got damaged due to wind, fire or something else. There’s a lot of different solutions out there we’re finding, and we’re getting really creative out there in the field.”
Indeed, of the 20 public-safety requests for communications support during Hurricane Florence that hit the Carolinas in September, 13 were addressed with the deployment of SatCOLTs and seven were resolved using other methods, Sambar said.
During Hurricane Michael, which hit the Florida panhandle in October, public safety made 30 requests—24 of which were resolved with the deployment of SatCOLTs and six were addressed via other approaches, Sambar said.
In addition, FirstNet’s status as the nationwide public-safety broadband network helped AT&T gain access to key sites as early as possible, Sambar said.
“We were the first to roll in with emergency-response crews—we actually partnered with the state very closely,” Sambar said. “As their initial teams went in, we went in with them, in their convoy. We were the only carrier that was able to do that, because we were the FirstNet program.
“Our network suffered the same challenges on the commercial side that other commercial carriers did. The differentiator was—with all of these SatCOLTs deployed throughout the panhandle in Florida—we were able to replicate much of the network that had gone down.”
AT&T FirstNet also was active last month in response to the massive Camp, Woolsey and Hill wildfires in California, Sambar said.
“Between FirstNet-requested assets and assets deployed by our Network Disaster Recovery team, we had 10 portable cell sites and additional network-recovery equipment that was deployed throughout the state to satisfy public safety,” Sambar said. “This was in order to replace the LTE service from all carriers; as the towers get burned up, all carrier service goes out, as well—in many cases—as the land-mobile-radio networks, because they’re, in some cases—co-located on the same towers.”
Such response efforts are a key reason why some public-safety agencies are adopting FirstNet as its broadband carrier, Sambar said. In October, AT&T said it had 250,000 FirstNet subscribers from 3,600 agencies. Sambar did not update those figures yesterday—“we will be releasing new numbers here in the near future,” he said—but offered some new insight about the makeup of the FirstNet subscriber base.
“70% of those agencies were new customers that we did not have a previous relationship with, so they were coming from another carrier,” Sambar said. “So, there’s a lot of positive sentiment that we’re getting from those new customers that we didn’t have a relationship with before.
“I believe that we will see this momentum continue and actually increase, as it has been over the past couple of months since those numbers were released. As more first responders learn that they have an option that’s been purpose-built and specifically designed for them, I think we will have continued success.”
Sambar criticized AT&T rival Verizon—without referencing the carrier by name—to attract public-safety users with its virtual LTE core.
“I’ve been a little bit disappointed to see one of the other major carriers misleading public safety by saying they have a separate core [for public-safety users] when, in fact, it is actually their commercial core, because there is a significant distinction between the two,” Sambar said. “We spent a significant amount of money, time, energy and effort between the two organizations [the FirstNet Authority and AT&T] just to build the separate core.”
Sambar also criticized Verizon’s color decision for its public-safety subscriber-identification-module (SIM) cards.
“They went so far to produce a black SIM card for their offering, which is a marketing gimmick,” Sambar said. “We have a black SIM card [for FirstNet subscribers], because we wanted our sales and service people to know which SIM card they were putting in the device to make sure the user was on the right network, not as a marketing gimmick. I find that fairly distasteful. It’s misleading.
“But nonetheless, we’re going to stay positive with our message in the market and make sure first responders understand what the differences are. But I would say to everyone listening: Hold your carrier accountable, and make sure you understand the details of what the offerings are.”
Verizon disagreed with Sambar’s assessments.
“Verizon doesn’t need to mislead anyone about our public-safety offerings,” according to a Verizon statement provided to IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “We hold a more than 450,000-square-mile network coverage advantage over our nearest competitor and have been partners with first responders for decades.
“Our Responder Private Core is part of our award-winning 4G LTE network design and intelligently manages traffic between commercial and public-safety customers. We believe choice is good for public safety, and it’s driving new innovation and investment. And we’re leading the way to 5G, working with technology providers to develop innovative use cases for public safety.”