AT&T says planned FirstNet buildout passes halfway point, adoption numbers increase by 33% in Q1
FirstNet is serving more than 7,000 agencies and 570,000 subscribers—both increases of about 33% compared to three months ago—and the scheduled buildout of the nationwide public-safety broadband network (NPSBN) was 53% as of the end of March, officials for FirstNet contractor AT&T said today.
“Our FirstNet build has now passed the halfway mark and is running well ahead of schedule,” AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said during the carrier’s first-quarter earnings call. “We now have more than 7,000 agencies signed up across the country, with more than 570,000 subscribers—and those numbers are growing.”
For AT&T, the 7,000 agencies using FirstNet represent a 33% increase compared to the 5,250 public-safety agencies reported in January. Meanwhile, the 570,000 FirstNet subscribers are a 34% increase compared to the 425,000 “connections” to the NPSBN that were cited in January.
While FirstNet adoption has grown in previous quarters, a large majority of those NPSBN subscribers previously used AT&T commercial broadband service. Both Stephenson and AT&T CFO John Stephens said that trend is changing, although neither AT&T executive cited numerical data to support the claim.
“The percentage of new FirstNet customers is shifting to more customers new to AT&T and fewer migrations,” Stephens said.
Meanwhile, FirstNet is having a positive impact on AT&T beyond just the public-safety subscribers, because many of them also are purchasing multiple commercial subscriptions to family members, according to Stephenson.
“We put some very attractive offers out there for [FirstNet subscribers’] families,” Stephenson said. “[For] every FirstNet subscriber that comes on to the network, I think the latest number … is we’re getting two family members with it. And so, this is driving a not-inconsequential impact on subscriber gains—the network quality being the best, and FirstNet being a main driver of it.
“So, FirstNet is going to be a very important strategic element for us for a number of years to come, and we continue to be more enthused about it than when we won the bid and won the deal.”
Indeed, FirstNet is playing critical role in AT&T broader strategy for wireless growth, according to Stephens.
“We grew postpaid phone net adds by 80,000 in the quarter—a significant improvement, compared to a year ago—and FirstNet continued to be a tailwind to customer growth,” Stephens said.
AT&T continues to roll out the FirstNet system on 700 MHz Band 14 spectrum licensed to the FirstNet Authority at a pace that is ahead of schedule, according to Stephens.
“We are at 53% of our network buildout for FirstNet, as of the end of the first quarter,” he said. “We expect to get to 60% clearly by the end of the third quarter, because that’s the next billing milestone and payment milestone with the FirstNet Authority.”
FirstNet also continues to play a critical role in AT&T’s network-evolution strategy that is designed to increase bandwidth capacity and provide a roadmap to 5G. AT&T has crews installing equipment to support FirstNet Band 14 operations to also deploy gear for the carrier’s WCS and AWS-3 spectrum—work that increases AT&T’s spectral capacity at each site by more than 50%. In addition, these crews also prepare the site for AT&T’s 5G Evolution (5GE) service, which allows sites to be transformed to 5G via a remote software upgrade.
“Our competitors hate it, but it is having exactly the effect that you want it to have,” Stephenson said. “Our customers see this [5GE] tag and they go do a speed check and they’re seeing 80, 90, 100, 150 MB/s speeds, depending on where they are. It is truly a step-change difference in product capability.”
AT&T expects to make 5G coverage available to more than 200 million people by the end of 2020, Stephenson said.