FirstNet Band 14 coverage serves about half of U.S. rural population, FirstNet Authority reports
About half the rural population within the U.S. is within the FirstNet coverage footprint for operations using 700 MHz Band 14 spectrum licensed to the FirstNet Authority, according to the FirstNet Authority’s annual report to Congress that was released last week.
Although the information in the report is about seven months old—reflecting the FirstNet Authority’s fiscal year 2019, which concluded at the end of September—the figures should be notable to public-safety representatives who have expressed concern about AT&T’s deployment of Band 14 in rural areas of the United States.
“FirstNet has prioritized buildout in rural America,” the FirstNet Authority’s annual report states. “As of September 2019, the FirstNet Solution allows the public-safety community to serve approximately 45% of the rural population; that is about 23 million of the approximately 51 million people who constitute the Nation’s rural population.
“Our FY 2020 goal—identified as a Department of Commerce Agency Priority Goal—is to build on this success and further extend the network to serve 55% of the rural population.”
If this rural-deployment goal of 55% is met, FirstNet Band 14 coverage would let first responders serve more than 28 million of the nation’s 51 million people that comprise the U.S. rural population by the end of September.
AT&T has expanded its network coverage significantly in recent years, driven in large part by its Band 14 deployment obligations under its 25-year contract with the FirstNet Authority. Earlier this year, figures from AT&T, Verizon and a third-party industry source revealed that Verizon’s one-time 450,000-square-mile coverage advantage a few years ago has narrowed to 70,000 square miles nationwide.
When AT&T was awarded the contract to build and maintain the FirstNet nationwide public-safety broadband network (NPSBN) in March 2017, the carrier giant announced that it would grant FirstNet subscribers priority and preemption across its commercial spectrum bands, in addition to deploying equipment to enable Band 14 operations.
While this approach allowed let public-safety entities quickly subscribe to FirstNet service provided on AT&T’s commercial LTE system, AT&T remained obligated to deploy the NPSBN nationwide using the 20 MHz swath of Band 14 spectrum licensed to the FirstNet Authority. AT&T is at least nine months ahead of the contracted schedule, in terms of its buildout of Band 14.
“Construction of the FirstNet network began in March 2018 and is not required to be complete until March 2023,” according to the FirstNet Authority report. “In the short time since construction began, of the Federal Communications Commission’s 734 cellular market areas throughout the country, over 650 have now been deployed with Band 14 in rural, suburban, and urban markets.”
AT&T officials repeatedly have emphasized the company’s FirstNet buildout strategy. As crews for AT&T install Band 14 equipment at cell sites—both existing sites and new sites to meet coverage promises made in the FirstNet state plans—they also deploy 5G-ready equipment that leverages 20 MHz swaths of WCS and AWS-3 spectrum. When combined with the Band 14 airwaves, AT&T can add 60 MHz of new spectrum to its operations from a given cell site.
Meanwhile, this approach is also cited as a primary reason why AT&T expects to be able to offer nationwide 5G connectivity in the sub-6 GHz bands by the end of the summer.