AT&T says FirstNet Band 14 buildout more than 90% done, adoption tops 2 million connections
AT&T has completed more than 90% of the buildout of its contracted FirstNet coverage using 700 MHz Band 14 spectrum “well ahead of schedule,” and the nationwide public-safety broadband network (NPSBN) supports more than 2 million connection, the carrier giant announced today.
AT&T added almost 100,000 square miles of coverage to its network during 2020, meaning FirstNet subscribers now enjoy coverage across more than 2.71 million square miles. More than half of the 1,000-plus new cell sites scheduled for deployment as part of the FirstNet rollout have been launched, with every state receiving additional coverage as a result, according to an AT&T press release on the matter.
Under its contract with the FirstNet Authority, AT&T is paid based on meeting staged development goals, including certain buildout milestones. As of the end of March 2021, AT&T is contracted to complete 80% of the planned LTE buildout of infrastructure that supports operations on Band 14, the 20 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum licensed to the FirstNet Authority. AT&T surpassed this 80% threshold last year.
AT&T is contracted to finish 95% of the planned Band 14 buildout for the FirstNet system by the end of March 2022. Today’s announcement of surpassing the 90% threshold—less than three years since the buildout task order was issued in March 2018—indicates that the carrier is almost a year ahead of schedule in meeting that milestone.
AT&T is scheduled to complete the Band 14 buildout in March 2023, as well develop and deploy many technologies identified as crucial to public safety.
“These are major milestones in the growth, adoption and deployment of public safety’s network,” FirstNet Authority CEO Ed Parkinson said in a prepared statement. “The FirstNet Authority is pleased that buildout continues to be ahead of schedule and that we are moving closer to fully realizing the vision of a nationwide network that serves all of public safety. This progress shows the strength of our partnership with public safety and how their involvement is critical to the success of the network.”
FirstNet adoption also continues to increase, and the NPSBN now is supporting more than 2 million subscriber connections and more than 15,000 agencies, according to the AT&T press release. This means the number of FirstNet connections has doubled in the 14 months since December 2019, when AT&T announced that FirstNet was supporting 1 million connections and 10,000 agencies.
“2020 made it clearer than ever before how critical it is for first responders to have the tools and wireless infrastructure they need to communicate with each other wherever their mission takes them,” Jason Porter, senior vice president for the FirstNet Program at AT&T, said in a prepared statement.
“Now tens of thousands of towns and cities have access to FirstNet, bringing America’s public-safety community the only network built to their strict specifications and requirements. It’s because of FirstNet’s mission-centric design and unparalleled capabilities that more and more agencies are making the switch from best-effort commercial networks—and we’ll continue to deliver on the promises of FirstNet and proudly serve as public safety’s true network partner.”
From the early days of FirstNet, officials and observers have acknowledged the need for AT&T to expand its LTE coverage to convince public-safety user and agencies to adopt the NPSBN. Indeed, officials for Verizon—the carrier that traditionally served the bulk of the public-safety broadband market—long claimed a nationwide 400,000-square-mile LTE coverage advantage.
But the LTE coverage comparison has changed dramatically during the past couple of years, as AT&T has largely closed the gap by focusing on expanding its coverage as part of the FirstNet agreement, including the deployment of more than 500 new sites specifically to serve areas that state officials identified as needing coverage in 2017.
This effort to expand FirstNet coverage has made a noticeable impact during deployments related to COVID-19 initiatives, according to Gerald Reardon, SAFECOM chair and a retired fire chief for the for Cambridge (Mass.) Public Safety, where he continues to serve as a senior advisor.
“Communications is integral to every public-safety incident,” Reardon said in a prepared statement. “And since FirstNet is designed specifically for first responders with the priority features we need, the City of Cambridge is utilizing FirstNet for our critical Fire, Police and EMS assets.
“The drive from FirstNet to consistently increase coverage has been impressive, especially as we work to combat COVID-19. With our mobile task force constantly moving locations for testing sites and vaccination locations, FirstNet not only fits the bill, but is key to our missions’ success.”
Danae Wilson, manager of the Nez Perce Tribe’s department of technology services and chair of the FirstNet Authority’s Tribal Working Group, echoed this sentiment.
“It’s encouraging to see new infrastructure is extending the reach of FirstNet for tribal communities,” Wilson said in a prepared statement. “For the Nez Perce Tribe, we have worked collaboratively with the FirstNet Authority and AT&T to make sure FirstNet meets the needs of our tribal first responders. While the new site that launched in Kamiah, Idaho is an important step forward, we hope to have even more reservation coverage that will come as new sites are deployed.”
FirstNet coverage figures are based on access provided to subscribers using LTE devices operating at normal power levels of 0.2 watts, according to AT&T officials.
Last month, AT&T announced the availability of MegaRange service to FirstNet subscribers that leverages the high-power-user-equipment (HPUE) to expand the effective range of LTE mobile devices by 60% to 100%–and significantly enhancing uplink and downlink data throughput—at the network edge. No benefits from MegaRange, which lets devices operate at power levels up to 1.25 watts—were factored into the AT&T coverage statistics unveiled today, according to the company.
Of course, no carrier provides terrestrial LTE coverage in all U.S. locations, and—even in locations where coverage typically is available—network infrastructure can be damaged by natural or man-made disasters. In such circumstances, FirstNet subscribers are able to request deployable units—at no additional cost—to fill coverage gaps or to enhance broadband capacity to a geographic location during an incident or event.
Such flexibility is valuable to public-safety response efforts, according to John McMahon, deputy chief and commanding officer for the information-technology bureau of the Los Angeles Police Department.
“AT&T’s commitment to the public-safety community through FirstNet, is clearly evidenced by the quality and priority access of the cellular connectivity, and the tremendous customer service we are experiencing at the Los Angeles Police Department,” McMahon said in a prepared statement.
“The entire FirstNet team at AT&T is thoroughly engaged, working to deliver the tools and resources necessary to meet the unique needs of the LAPD. Most importantly, the FirstNet team’s demonstrated flexibility and willingness to adapt has become a critical aspect in the advancement of the LAPD’s mobility strategy and the management of our information technology infrastructure—critical for the thousands of officers that are dedicated to protecting and serving the people of Los Angeles.”