FirstNet: maturing the network

Philip Mason talks to AT&T’s head of FirstNet operations, Scott Agnew, about the evolution of the offer and the benefits of a competition-based model when it comes to scaling devices

Scott Agnew

The FirstNet build-out began over half a decade ago. At what stage are you in terms of overall network coverage?

We executed final operating capability in March of this year, but you couldn’t say that FirstNet is ever ‘done’. It’s a 25-year commitment between AT&T, the American federal government and, of course, public safety.

In terms of the coverage itself, that was actually ‘nationwide’ in 2017. We’ve since completed the initial five-year build-out, and met/exceeded the contractual coverage requirements set by the federal government. But we aren’t stopping there.

What does that mean in real, geographical, terms?

We have 250,000 more square miles covered than any

other carrier, which basically equates to the size of Texas. The level of investment from the FirstNet Authority, alongside the commitment from AT&T to build Band 14, has led to a tremendous, powerful network.

In addition, we’ve also launched MegaRange, which harnesses Band 14. This is high-power user equipment – devices which can go up to six times further from the tower.

At the same time, there is also innovation when it comes to our ‘deployables’ [to provide additional coverage]. We started with 72 dedicated network-deployable assets that are specifically for FirstNet customers, in addition to the hundreds that we use for AT&T. Now we’re up to more than 180 dedicated assets, and they can go anywhere in the US within 14 hours.

We’ve also driven innovation by developing Compact Rapid Deployables [CRDs], which can be hitched to a vehicle, as well as miniCRDs. These are the size of two suitcases, and which public safety organisations have the opportunity to own and operate themselves. From a deployment perspective, we view all this as highly successful, and arguably one of the best public/private partnerships in US history.

On what basis did the build-out progress in the first instance? Was it primarily according to which states had signed up?

The build-out in a given location didn’t start until the state opted in. By the end of 2017, all 50 states had [opted in]. Every state, US territory and the District of Columbia had the option to either opt into FirstNet or use the Band 14 spectrum to build their own state RAN network.

Each state also had the opportunity to provide feedback and update their custom state plan. After careful review, each governor ultimately chose to opt into FirstNet. This meant that FirstNet truly was a nationwide network – exactly as public safety had envisioned.

Has the ‘competition’ model been beneficial in getting commercial partners involved? What impact has it had on the availability of devices, for instance?

As far as provision of devices is concerned, it’s critical. We currently have over 720 devices certified on FirstNet, and when we look at the use-cases, it’s just voluminous. That includes tablets, EMS vehicles, smartphones, PTT being used by police, IoT solutions, bodyworn video and more.

It’s not just two-way communications now, because users are in the data world. So, form factors have to be broad and, as a result, we’ve done a lot of device certification.

From my perspective, we have to use the commercial model for devices and infrastructure, because that’s the only way we’re going to get the scale, as well as the device choices, and the cost that customers are looking for. They’re used to going into a store and buying a couple of 100-dollar devices. Maybe they’ll pay a premium, but the bottom line [from the user perspective] really is cost-effectiveness.

The only way to [provide the requisite devices] to scale is to use the commercial market. While, of course, at the same time, providing certification and any required maintenance releases to make sure they’re secure and work for public safety.

Can you describe the FirstNet-specific testing that takes place?

I’d estimate that several thousands of additional tests occur, meaning that OEMs have to make the decision as to whether they’re going to invest in that process. One of the concerns we had early on was whether we were going to get the device manufacturers to the table, because they’re obviously always looking for volume.

Sonim and Samsung came on board immediately, as did Apple and other device manufacturers. Having Band 14 as part of the device is second nature now.

Would it have worked leveraging a different model, in terms of device certification and supply?

We could have done it with different models, but the whole success of FirstNet is built off of that ability to scale. We dedicate where we must – the core and the spectrum – and scale wherever we can.

How is the network currently being exploited by users? How has that evolved since the initial roll-out?

A lot has changed over the years, and naturally, use-cases are continuing to change as well. When we started, users were primarily leveraging data. You’d see mobile data terminals in police cars, connected ambulances and so on. It was very straightforward in that regard.

We’re now starting to see the mission-critical voice aspect, with user organisations wanting to use FirstNet in its entirety. That could be on a hybrid LTE/LMR device or a voice-only LTE device. Public safety in the US doesn’t seem to want to invest in purely voice-only land mobile anymore.

At the same time, IoT is coming into full force, with bodyworn video being one of the first key solutions being leveraged. I know this has been spoken about a lot, but the future really is video, video and video.

That being the case, we have to make sure that we continue to implement the technology that affords public safety the right quality of service for those particular solutions. That also includes things like closed-circuit surveillance, gun-shot detectors and so on.

You mentioned the increasing popularity of broadband-enabled MCPTT among US users. Where does that leave P25?

Customers are essentially asking whether there’s an option to use FirstNet for MCPTT, and right now we’re seeing them maintain both our network and P25. We offer multiple interoperable solutions.

Most of those are hardware-based, but some are based in the cloud. We’re in the process of launching an interworking function that will provide another option for an IP, cloud-based solution. Most of our current conversations are around that. We see what’s happening now as the natural process of the network. First-responders have become comfortable with the performance and coverage on FirstNet, and the number of MCPTT users now is growing steadily.

Other US mobile network operators now offer services to the public safety market. To what degree has the evolution of FirstNet been driven by competition in that sense?

When it comes to innovation and the evolution of the network, I always say that we’re competing against ourselves just to get better.

In terms of the US market, I think it would be fair to say that FirstNet has driven it to be more conscious of the needs of public safety. That’s a very good thing.

However, the difference between commercial carriers and FirstNet are things like the dedicated spectrum and core. If it were me – if I was a user – I would be using FirstNet.

Do the users see it like that, from what you can gather? There are many factors involved in procurement decisions, after all…

Public safety – or indeed, any user – buys on a variety of factors, including coverage, price and speed. That’s what you look for.

Beyond that, public safety has a rich history of trusting its own communications infrastructure. Until now, they could not scale to a nationwide system built just for them, but FirstNet gives them that option, along with all of the other decision factors. America’s public safety network is a reality and they are adopting in huge numbers.

Feedback from first-responders continues to go back into our network process, and we go forward from there. For instance, we already have a non-standalone 5G solution for public safety.

Public safety users already have access to AT&T’s 5G spectrum. And when that’s at capacity, they’ll fall back onto Band 14 LTE, with priority and pre-emption.