AT&T cites 50,000-square-mile FirstNet coverage expansion, greater public-safety adoption
AT&T expanded its LTE coverage by more than 50,000 square miles and deployed the 700 MHz Band 14 spectrum licensed to FirstNet in more than 500 markets during 2018, with the number of connections to the FirstNet system topping the 425,000 threshold, AT&T announced yesterday.
“We’re moving fast to bring the unique features and benefits of FirstNet to life,” Chris Sambar, AT&T’s senior vice president for FirstNet, said in a prepared statement. “We’re less than a year into the Band 14 build and months ahead of schedule. And we already cover more than 40% of our total FirstNet Band 14 rural and non-rural coverage targets. That’s about a 10% jump in the FirstNet square miles covered since last October.
“Witnessing the real, tangible and—at times—life-saving impacts that FirstNet had in 2018 fuels us to keep moving quickly to blanket the country with reliable connectivity. And we’re set for the explosive growth ahead.”
Indeed, it only has been slightly more than a year since AT&T—the nationwide contractor for FirstNet—learned that governors in all U.S. states and territories made “opt-in” decisions that ensured that AT&T would build the nationwide public-safety broadband network throughout the country, based on deployment plans for each state. Those state plans called for new cell sites to be installed at locations outside of AT&T’s existing coverage footprint, often in rural areas.
But developing new cell sites can be a time-consuming process, requiring planning, engineering and regulatory approvals before actual construction and installation work can begin. Much of the 2018 coverage expansion cited by AT&T yesterday were cell sites developed by the carrier for its commercial purposes, which also benefits FirstNet users. For many of the proposed new cell sites included in FirstNet state plans, 2018 resulted in the significant progress on this preparatory work, with a larger percentage of these FirstNet-targeted sites being completed in 2019 and future years.
“The added LTE coverage is a result of our ongoing network-build initiatives to expand and enhance connectivity for consumers and first responders in both urban and rural areas,” according to an AT&T statement provided to IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “This includes both indoor and outdoor sites, as well as our deployment of Band 14 spectrum. The overall Band 14 deployment plans also include 1,000-plus new sites, which will be constructed over the next several years.”
In contrast, AT&T has moved quickly to deploy equipment at its existing cell sites that supports operations on 20 MHz of Band 14 spectrum, as well as on fallow AWS-3 and WCS airwaves—a 20 MHz in each case—that is licensed to the carrier giant. In addition to deploying this 60 MHz of spectrum, crews installing the gear also AT&T are deployment equipment to support the carrier’s 5G Evolution initiative, which is designed to let the transition from 4G to 5G happen with a software upgrade, according to AT&T officials.
These efforts promise to make a significant impact on the user experiences for both public-safety and commercial customers, according to Marachel Knight, AT&T’s senior vice president for wireless and access engineering, construction and operations.
“The demand for data has been on a nonstop, upward trajectory for years,” Knight said in a prepared statement. “Our ongoing work to launch new sites and build out our LTE network is delivering increased network speeds and capacity. By the end of this year, we expect our network capacity to increase by 50% since the end of 2017 while simultaneously laying the foundation for a 5G future.”
AT&T also updated FirstNet adoption numbers, noting that the FirstNet system supports more than 425,000 connections—a 60% increase in less than three months. More than 5,250 puiblic-safety agencies subscribe to FirstNet, according to AT&T.
The number of agencies is noticeably less than the figure shared with a California board about a month ago. When asked about the discrepancy, an AT&T spokeswoman informed IWCE’s Urgent Communications that the figure shared in December was an “interim” number that was not accurate.
“We determined in our normal quarter-end process that it [the number of agencies shared with the California board in December] contained some overlaps,” according to the AT&T statement provided to IWCE’s Urgent Communications.
FirstNet Authority Acting CEO Ed Parkinson expressed optimism about the progress associated with FirstNet.
“FirstNet is advancing quickly, both in terms of progress and adoption,” Parkinson said in a prepared statement. “It’s an incredible testament to the need first responders have for a dedicated, purpose-built network as well as the unparalleled capabilities FirstNet has already delivered.
“We are looking forward to the further expansion of FirstNet in the year ahead and will continue to work closely with first responders and AT&T to ensure FirstNet is being built to their specifications—coverage and capacity included. With the Band 14 buildout validated thus far, we’re pleased that more first responders in rural and urban areas have even more access to the connectivity and modern communications tools they need.”
When outside of the footprint of the AT&T FirstNet terrestrial network, FirstNet subscribers have numerous deployable options, according to AT&T. FirstNet has 72 dedicated deployable assets that are available at no charge to subscriber agencies, or they can purchase their own deployable network assets from the First Responders Mobility Zone program.
FirstNet subscribers also can use Rapid Deployment Kits, which are now being delivered after being available for orders since November. Introduced at the APCO 2018 event last August—then known as an Emergency Drop Kit—the Rapid Deployment Kit is a 25-pound pelican case that includes four rugged smart devices, a router that includes support for Band 14 operations and satellite connectivity that can be leveraged when other broadband backhaul options are not available.
The self-contained Rapid Deployment Kit is designed to let public-safety personnel “bring the network with them,” even to locations that cannot be accessed by a deployable communications vehicle.