In the US, AT&T has launched the FirstNet network core, which will process and carry public safety users’ vital information, unlock critical capabilities like FirstNet’s First Priority feature (see below) and form the basis for what the company describes as “the unified, interoperable and nationwide communications system that public safety envisioned.”

While the FirstNet evolved packet core was under construction, first responders were using AT&T’s commercial core to access FirstNet’s early benefits. Now that the FirstNet evolved packet core has launched, AT&Tcan begin moving public safety users over to it. It will start with a controlled introduction with a limited customer set while the First Responder Network Authority completes its testing of the network core. Once the controlled introduction completes, more FirstNet customers will be moved onto the FirstNet evolved packet core and this is expected to take place in “the April/May timeframe”. AT&T said that in future, moving to the FirstNet evolved packet core may be as simple as swapping out a commercial SIM card for a FirstNet SIM card.

The launch of the FirstNet network core now means that first responders will be able to access First Priority and an incident management portal. The former will give them two more priority levels (for a total of three) and AT&T claims that this will mean that public safety agencies will have the ability to assign priority levels based on their command structure or shifting needs. It adds that the portal will allow public safety agencies to adjust the network resources available to them in near-time and also increase those available to non-first responder users that are often essential to managing incidents – such as those from utilities or transportation companies.

AT&T has built the FirstNet evolved packet core using physically separate hardware, which will effectively separate public safety’s traffic from commercial traffic. To keep all traffic on the FirstNet evolved packet core protected, it has been designed with a defence-in-depth approach. It also will be monitored 24/7/365 by a dedicated security operations centre with a dedicated team of experts. The First Responder Network Authority can check in on the network at any time through a custom portal that provides full visibility into the security operations centre.

AT&T is looking to bring additional features to FirstNet users including mission-critical Push-to-Talk and z-Axis location-based services. The latter are aimed at providing commanders with a better idea of where their assets are deployed when tackling incidents within high-rise buildings where its crucial to know which floor(s) they are on.

“The launch of the network core comes a year into the FirstNet public-private partnership. It’s been a non-stop 12 months. And we’re proud of the quick progress we’ve made in this short timeframe, consistently delivering on or ahead of schedule,” said Chris Sambar, senior vice president, AT&T – FirstNet. “But bringing the FirstNet network core to life is one of the most exciting milestones yet.”

Update - core on core – Verizon seeks to beat AT&T to the finishing line
In a twist that highlights the ongoing rivalry between AT&T and Verizon (the MNO that is effectively the incumbent provider of mobile broadband services to the majority of US public safety organisations using such a service, but did not bid for the FirstNet contract), Verizon has announced that its public safety private core will be generally available on 29 March – just ahead of AT&T's timeframe. Verizon's core will provide public safety users with traffic segmentation, priority and pre-emption, improved security, and enhanced service management and control. It is connected to Verizon’s Radio Access Network (RAN) which uses spectrum in various bands including 700 MHz, 800 MHz Cellular, 1.9 GHz PCS, and the 1.7/2.1 GHz AWS bands. The public safety core separates data traffic of public safety mobile users from commercial users across Verizon’s 4G LTE network. The company states that public safety users will have their data immediately recognised as public safety with priority access at the tower and through the network.

“Public safety answers the call when we need them most,” said John Stratton, Verizon executive vice president and president of global operations. “We remain committed to providing them innovative communications solutions that help them help us, and we are honoured by the trust they put in Verizon every day.”

Commenting on Verizon's announcement on Twitter and LinkedIn, Ken Rehbehn, principal analyst at Critical Communications Insights, said that it was easier for Verizon to arbitrarily pick a date for the launch of its core given that it is a simpler offering (he stated that it lacks equivalent functionality to the AT&T core's incident management portal) and will not be tested by the First Responder Network Authority.

Author: Sam Fenwick