T-Mobile proposal of free 5G for public safety is a great idea, but there are a lot of caveats
T-Mobile’s announcement of a potential Connecting Heroes program that would give public safety access to free broadband talk, text and smartphone data over its 5G network for 10 years has raised a lot of eyebrows in the first-responder community. There is little doubt that “free” is an attractive feature in any offer to budget-conscious public-safety agencies, but there is confusion about the details of the proposal.
One thing that is clear is that Connecting Heroes is a proposal, not an actual offering today. The Connecting Heroes initiative is one of three “5G for Good” proposals that T-Mobile officials say would become a reality only if T-Mobile’s proposed merger with Sprint is completed, creating “New T-Mobile.”
That merger has received federal regulatory approvals from the FCC and the U.S. Department of Justice, but a group of more than 10 states have filed a lawsuit to block the deal, and that case is scheduled to begin on Dec. 9. Several states that initially were parties to the lawsuit have settled in the interim. Many industry analysts believe that Connecting Heroes and T-Mobile’s other “5G for Good” offerings were announced last week in an attempt to convince the remaining states to settle.
Given this backdrop, it is understandable why some critics of T-Mobile have labeled the offerings as a threat, as in, “Approve our merger, or we won’t give you free broadband for public safety.”
But T-Mobile officials say there is a technical reason why Connecting Heroes can only happen if the merger goes through. With the merger, T-Mobile will have the spectral resources—notably, Sprint’s massive 2.5 GHz licenses—to build a network that has 14 times the capacity of T-Mobile’s current network, according to T-Mobile. Without the merger, T-Mobile would not have the network capacity to provide these free or low-cost “5G for Good” offerings.
It should be noted that T-Mobile has pledged verbally to make the Connecting Heroes offer available when its merger with Sprint is completed, but there is no indication that Connecting Heroes is part of any formal agreement with federal or state regulators to date.
At the very least, just the announcement of the Connecting Heroes proposal has public-safety community talking about T-Mobile in an unprecedented manner. Currently, Verizon and FirstNet—the nationwide public-safety broadband network (NPSBN) being built by AT&T—dominate the public-safety broadband landscape. Sprint has a small market share in the first-responder sector, and T-Mobile has been little more than an afterthought to most agencies, until now.
If the merger is finalized and the proposal becomes a reality, what would the Connecting Heroes plan from “New T-Mobile” provide to the first-responder community?
According to T-Mobile officials during last week’s announcement, Connecting Heroes would give public-safety agencies—and individual public-safety users—free access to unlimited talk, text and smartphone data for 10 years on its 5G network. Connecting Heroes public-safety traffic on the 5G network would not be subject to data caps or throttling of broadband speeds, T-Mobile officials said during the announcement call.
T-Mobile CEO John Legere—rumored to be talks to leave the carrier and take over as CEO of WeWork—said that offerings like Connecting Heroes are designed to “solve pain points.” Indeed, cost is a significant issue in the public-safety sector, particularly among agencies with tight budget and volunteer departments—and there are a lot of agencies that fit into these categories.
While FirstNet and Verizon are working hard to attract first-responder users that have budgets for broadband service, neither have been able to provide an offering that is attractive enough to convince a significant number of agencies without an existing broadband budget to find the funds necessary to subscribe to high-speed connectivity. Some have argued that such agencies could make the switch when LTE is able to provide a mission-critical-voice replacement to LMR technology—thereby freeing the funds supporting LMR—but that has not happened to date.
Given this backdrop, the notion of free access to broadband provided by Connecting Heroes should be attractive to public-safety users and agencies. That almost certainly would have been the case four or five years ago, when a commercial contract with a carrier was all any public-safety entity could get in the broadband arena.
In fact, most public-safety agencies I spoke with during the pre-FirstNet period often mentioned how difficult it was for them to even get carriers to return their calls for more information about coverage and rate plans.
But circumstances have changed dramatically, driven by the 2017 selection of AT&T as the FirstNet Authority’s contractor to build the NPSBN envisioned by Congress.
FirstNet dramatically changed ed the conversation about what a public-safety broadband package should include. A dedicated public-safety LTE core—a physically separate on, in the case of FirstNet, and a virtualized one for carriers like Verizon—is expected., as well as an application ecosystem. Access concepts like priority and preemption—features no commercial entity offered even three years ago—introduced by FirstNet are now table stakes to serve the public-safety sector.
(Here’s a layman’s explanation of the difference between priority and preemption: Prioritized access means a user with priority is moved to the top of the queue when trying to gain access to a cell site during times of network congestion, and the user’s traffic is moved into the next available slot at the cell site. However, if the cell site is being used to full capacity, the user with priority still would not be able to access the tower. In contrast, preemption lets a user in this scenario gain access to a fully utilized cell site immediately, even if it means disconnecting or relocating an existing user of the cell site.)
These features apparently would not be provided under New T-Mobile’s Connecting Heroes initiative. A dedicated public-safety LTE core was never mentioned during the announcement call, and T-Mobile officials did not respond to a written question from IWCE’s Urgent Communications about the issue.
Similarly, it does not appear that T-Mobile’s Connecting Heroes initiative would provide public-safety subscribers with priority or preemption, despite statements to the contrary by T-Mobile during the announcement call.
During the call, a T-Mobile official stated that public-safety traffic would have the “highest prioritization” and that preemption already is being offered by all carriers. One media outlet reported that T-Mobile acknowledged after the call that it does not provide preemption and does not plan to do so. T-Mobile did not dispute the accuracy of that article and did not respond to a written question on the matter from IWCE’s Urgent Communications.
Some might argue that priority and preemption will not be as important in a 5G world with unprecedented broadband capacity, so there is plenty of bandwidth for all users trying to access the network. That may be true in most circumstances, but in the most dire situations—often accompanied by a loss of network infrastructure—priority and preemption are still needed, according to most first-responder representatives.
Meanwhile, there are questions surrounding the financial aspect of the Connecting Heroes proposal. When asked whether the free access would be available to public-safety users when connected via 4G or 3G, if a 5G link is not available, T-Mobile responded with the following statement: “Our Connecting Heroes Initiative will include free access to New T-Mobile’s 5G network.”
If the free access is limited to 5G connectivity, the good news for public safety would be that T-Mobile is deploying 5G on its healthy swath of 600 MHz spectrum, with the network going live on Dec. 6 (this is not subject to the outcome of the Sprint merger). This provides an opportunity for better 5G coverage, because 600 MHz spectrum propagates really well—in fact, T-Mobile says it will provide 5G coverage to more than 60% of the U.S. population from Day 1, although Sprint’s 2.5 GHz spectrum holdings are needed to provide the desired capacity.
What’s not clear at this time is what would happen when a 5G signal from T-Mobile is not available to an agency subscribing to the Connecting Heroes plan. Are they charged? If so, at what rate? Also, many carriers plan to use technology that allows 4G LTE and 5G to operate in tandem on the same spectrum, particularly as 5G non-standalone (NSA) is commonplace during the early days of 5G. Would agencies on the Connecting Heroes plan be able to take advantage of these technologies, and would they have to pay when utilizing the 4G connection? It’s hard to tell with much certainty right now.
According to T-Mobile, Connecting Heroes would be available to the following public and non-profit state and local agencies:
- Law enforcement: Sheriff and police chiefs, command, staff, dispatch, and career auxiliary/volunteer;
- Fire: chiefs, command, staff, dispatch career auxiliary/volunteer; and
- Emergency Medical Services
T-Mobile officials indicated that it “would listen to” the idea that private ambulance services serving a non-profit government entity could qualify for Connecting Heroes. T-Mobile has not indicated that there are any plans currently to make Connecting Heroes available to “extended primary” groups like general government, utilities, transportation, and healthcare organizations.
In addition, T-Mobile did not respond to a question from IWCE’s Urgent Communications about how it would verify that agencies and individuals qualify as first responders.
To be fair, the idea that T-Mobile might not have all details of its Connecting Heroes plan ironed out is somewhat understandable—after all, it is just a proposal now, and there is possibility that the public-safety offering is never implemented, if the merger with Sprint is not completed. But it would be difficult for public-safety agencies to include T-Mobile in their communications plans without such details.
Of course, it’s hard to imagine any public-safety agency spending much time contemplating New T-Mobile’s Connecting Heroes offering until it progresses beyond the proposal stage, which would not occur until the merger with Sprint is finalized.
Even after the merger, the apparent lack of a dedicated public-safety core, priority and preemption—not to mention limited experience and relationships with U.S. public safety—probably would prevent agencies from adopting the T-Mobile plan as its primary broadband connectivity, in most cases. One notable exception would be an agency—particularly a volunteer department—that has little or no broadband budget and happens to be located in an area with good T-Mobile 5G coverage, so they would benefit from the free Connecting Heroes 5G service. .
Another potential scenario to monitor are agencies with dual-SIM devices—for example, Cradlepoint routers—that are able to access multiple carrier networks, transmitting and receiving data packets using the system with the better signal quality (or lower cost, depending on the policy).
While this dual-SIM redundancy is attractive to public safety conceptually, the problem is that it requires an agency to pay two carrier subscriptions for a single device. A Connecting Heroes subscription could prove helpful in this situation by making one of those subscription free.
All of the cost benefits and broadband access promised with T-Mobile’s proposal would be of value only if T-Mobile coverage exists where the first-responder user is located—the “coverage equals adoption” equation has had a significant influence on the growth of FirstNet subscriptions, according to numerous sources.
Benefiting T-Mobile in the coverage area is its healthy swath of 600 MHz spectrum, which propagates signals farther than primary spectrum licensed to any other carrier. In addition, it will be interesting to see how the rural-buildout requirements that are included in the federal agreements with the FCC impact coverage in sparsely populated areas, but T-Mobile traditionally has trailed Verizon and AT&T in most coverage metrics.
But, first things first, T-Mobile needs to complete its merger with Sprint. Until that happens, the other aspects of the proposal are meaningless to public safety.