FirstNet buildout on pace for March 2023 completion, AT&T official says
AT&T expects to finish its contracted five-year FirstNet buildout on Band 14 spectrum by the scheduled March 2023 deadline, but the carrier likely will not complete deployment significantly earlier, because most of the remaining cell sites are in some of the most challenging locations to service, according to an AT&T official.
Jason Porter, AT&T’s president of public sector and FirstNet, reiterated the fact that AT&T has built more than 90% of the coverage for Band 14—the 20 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum licensed to the FirstNet Authority—and reached the milestone about a year ahead of schedule. However, a large percentage of the remaining sites are among the toughest to build, so finishing the FirstNet buildout a year early is not expected, he said.
“We’re building ahead of schedule right now, but we are down to the challenging sites that might be really hard to get access to,” Porter said during an analyst conference this week hosted by Cowen.
“Our target is to be done by that March 2023 [contractual deadline], but we’re on track to finish a little early “But we’re down to some really hard sites to build in rural areas. So we’re going to probably take up … close to the whole time.”
If AT&T completes the contracted FirstNet buildout by March 2023, the nationwide public-safety broadband network (NPSBN) would be completed on time, on budget, and with a self-sustaining economic model that gives the FirstNet Authority about $15 billion in discretionary money to improve the system during the 25-year contract.
This would be a significant accomplishment, given the broad consensus within the public-safety and wireless-industry communities that the $7 billion allocated to the FirstNet Authority would not be nearly enough simply to build a nationwide network, much less create a self-sustaining business model.
In addition, FirstNet has surpassed public-safety broadband initiatives—in terms of buildout and user adoption–in both South Korea and the United Kingdom, although work on those projects began years before FirstNet and address much smaller geographic coverage areas.
In addition to the buildout milestones, AT&T also is in the process of meeting other contract commitments to the FirstNet Authority, in terms of technical functionality and the development of an robust ecosystem for first responders. Porter noted that there are 265 devices and 165 applications currently approved for use on the FirstNet system.
AT&T officials this week said that FirstNet is providing broadband service for more than 2.2 million connections across 16,500 subscribing agencies.
When asked about the 2.2 million connections, Porter said that “a majority of them are phones” today, but he acknowledged that could change in the futures, as other types of connected devices—for example, video cameras, wearables and myriad IoT devices—become more popular. In fact, movement in this direction already is evident, he said.
“We see really amazing devices from robotics that are being used for bomb detection and diffusion to, honestly, health and wellness applications, using watches and wearables to help make that first responders understand what’s going on with their frontline teams.” Porter said. “We also see body cams growing at a significant rate. And as we see affinity into other areas like transportation and smart cities being used by first responders, I think … that we are going to see more and more IoT growth in this segment.”
With this in mind, FirstNet’s addressable market also is proving to be larger than expected. AT&T previously estimated that there were 3.5 million “primary” first responders—fire, police, EMS, 911 and emergency- management personnel—in the U.S., but that figure “has really grown a little bit in the pandemic to just under 4 million,” Porter said.
FirstNet also is seeing adoption growth in other “extended primary” segments, notably health care and transportation, Porter said.
Inroads made into public-safety and critical-infrastructure entities via FirstNet also are leading to other business within these enterprises, according to Porter.
“Really, what FirstNet is doing for us is it is opening doors that we hadn’t been able to get into before,” he said, noting that a contract often does not stop with a single device.
“You also pick up the consumer-paid devices within that agency, and you start to grow within it as well … You start to get into body cams, robotics, all the other growth within those agencies. So there’s a tremendous opportunity and upside for FirstNet as we continue to grow our market share.”