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Nationwide First Responder Network Set to Launch; AT&T Investing $40 Billion

Chris Sambar

After years of discussion and planning, a nationwide cellular network for police, firefighters and other first responders is set to launch.

The FirstNet broadband network will allow public safety workers to communicate directly through voice, text, data and video. In emergency situations when cell towers are overloaded, communication to and from emergency personnel will take priority over calls from the public.

As the Washington Post describes it, paramedics in the back of an ambulance will be able to send video ahead to the emergency room, firefighters can stream video of an incident to their commanders, and police who aren’t near a computer will be able to access criminal records. The network will also track the locations of safety workers.

The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) was established by Congress in 2012 in response to the communication problems after the Sept. 11 attacks, but the plan to create a broadband network didn’t move forward until this year, when a major carrier signed on as a partner.

In March, FirstNet announced that it had awarded AT&T the wireless spectrum for the project. AT&T has agreed to invest $40 billion to build out the network and secure it.

The network is expected to launch this coming March.

States Signing On

States and territories must sign on to the project individually. In June, FirstNet and AT&T released customized plans for each state outlining the coverage, features and capabilities of FirstNet.

Since 2013, FirstNet has worked with states, territories, public safety officials and federal authorities to collect input on how the network could best meet their communication needs.

“When we announced our public-private partnership in March, we committed to begin building this unprecedented network and technology ecosystem for public safety later this year,” Chris Sambar, senior vice president of AT&T – FirstNet, said in a June 19 statement. “Later begins now. States, territories and public safety have expressed their desire to move quickly.”

As of Friday, 10 states had opted in: Arkansas, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming. The U.S. Virgin Islands territory has signed on as well.

According to the Washington Post report, FirstNet has set a series of deadlines for states that began Friday, which was the cutoff to provide comments or ask questions. In mid-September, FirstNet will notify states that they have 90 days left to make a decision. Mid-December is the final deadline to opt in.

Promises and Concerns

FirstNet is not intended to replace traditional radio dispatching, but due to bandwidth shortages, it is viewed by many as a much-needed supplement that will offer more reliable communication and new methods of communicating, aside from just voice.

Network security will be paramount, due to the private and sensitive nature of some emergency communications. AT&T has pledged to create “the most secure network on Earth” – one that is as bulletproof as possible with security centers that are dedicated solely to monitoring it.

Still, some first responders have reservations. The Washington Post article pointed to concerns about the cost of purchasing phones for officers and firefighters – many of whom do not have department-issued smartphones now – and paying for the subscription plans. Thus far, AT&T has not released plan or pricing details.

Some agencies also have reservations because they’ve purchased wireless service plans from other carriers. Joining FirstNet would require committing time and money to switch.

Partners and Integrators

AT&T certainly won’t be alone in getting the network off the ground. Partners like Motorola, for one, have signed on to provide mobile apps, software and services for FirstNet as part of AT&T’s team.

A slew of developers are expected to begin creating apps for the network’s smartphones now that the launch is imminent.

FirstNet has compiled a list of hundreds of vendors that have expressed interest in subcontracting or partnering on project requests for proposals (RFPs). Although the deadline to get on the list has passed, being on the list is not a requirement to submit a proposal or participate in an RFP related to the the project.

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