AT&T FirstNet Improves First Responders’ Emergency Response but What’s Next in Enhancing Public Safety?

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2Q 2022 | IN-6565

AT&T FirstNet is committed to expand coverage and drive innovation to further strengthen first responders’ situational awareness and emergency response. FirstNet is reaching 2.81+ million square miles, providing coverage to 99%+ of the US population and support 3+ million connections.

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AT&T FirstNet Has Launched New Innovative Features to Enhance Emergency Response


The First Responder Network Authority—FirstNet—was created by the U.S. government and built by AT&T, with operations starting in 2018. Since then, AT&T FirstNet has been committed to expanding its coverage and to driving innovation that will best support public safety. The network now reaches more than 2.81 million square miles, provides coverage to more than 99% of the U.S. population, and supports more than three million connections.

In March 2022, several new features launched to modernize first responders’ interoperable communication for both normal and emergency operations. FirstNet’s dedicated fleet has grown from 76 in 2020 to 150 deployable assets in 2022 (e.g., more than 90 satellite cell on light trucks and cell on wheels stationed at more than 50 locations nationwide, more than 50 compact rapid deployables, three communication vehicles, and three flying cell on wings) to help improve disaster response. AT&T ESInet—a solution that offers smarter connectivity, routing, resiliency, and security and supports images, large files, and better data and information at public safety answering points—has integrated with AT&T’s wireless network to provide a more accurate location for 911 callers. A new voice, video, and data solution, FirstNet Rapid Response supports push-to-talk calling via Wi-Fi, and mission-critical video streaming has been introduced to provide greater public safety situational awareness. AT&T has also enhanced Z-Axis for FirstNet to give a vertical visualization of the positions of first responders as well as the incidents with the aim of improving in-building situational awareness.

Why Is This Important?


In 2017, FirstNet awarded AT&T a 25-year contract to produce the system. It is the only purpose-built, nationwide, and fast-speed broadband communications platform dedicated to first responders in the United States. FirstNet was built with 4G and is now being upgraded to offer 5G capabilities. It has a dedicated LTE core, and the Band 14 spectrum that has been assigned to FirstNet is shared by first responders and AT&T commercial users, with first responders having priority to the band during an emergency. Therefore, it is considered as a hybrid public safety–LTE (PS-LTE) network with shared spectrum characteristics.

Technology is evolving, and public safety communications need new capabilities to further strengthen their situational awareness and emergency response. Positioning is vital for public safety agencies as lives can be saved through a more accurate dispatch of first responders. With the geospatial Z-Axis technology that provides more accurate location identification and visualization, first responders can more quickly track and rescue people who are stuck in certain places. The integration of AT&T ESInet with 911 service allows for a public safety answering point to route and track calls with efficiency and to improve emergency response time. The new voice, video, and data solution supporting push-to-talk calling via Wi-Fi and mission-critical video streaming can further increase first responders’ situational awareness and enable easy cooperation with other agencies. By providing more deployables to FirstNet subscribers 24/7 at no additional charge (within a 14-hour delivery window), public safety agencies have more control over their networks, better supporting first responders who battle hurricanes, wildfires, and other major disasters. In 2022, FirstNet has supported public safety in more than 550 emergency operations, helping responders to operate faster, safer, and more effectively. These mission-ready solutions are vital in advancing FirstNet’s network and enabling public safety agencies to help more people to stay safe across the country. According to the Federal Communications Commission, more than 10,000 lives could be saved per year, with first responders reaching callers one minute quicker.

PS-LTE already provides a wide variety of mission-critical use cases, and most (if not all) solutions are future-proof. Hence, public safety agencies should not wait for 5G to deploy their public safety networks. FirstNet’s successful implementation may boost the confidence of other countries (e.g., Germany, France, and Canada, etc.) that are planning or considering the deployment of a PS-LTE network under a hybrid framework. The primary benefit of a hybrid model is that it helps to extend coverage at critical hot spots; however, the complexity of network management can be an issue. There is no one-size-fits-all model as each nation has different plans and requirements to implement the next generation of public safety communication solutions. Public safety agencies should set decision criteria (e.g., for what type of users and services shall the public safety network be designed; will the network use a dedicated spectrum or a mobile network operator's spectrum; what is the maximum budget for the network; and what is the time line for the public safety project) to select the best model.

What Is Next?


In-building coverage is on top of desired improvements for FirstNet. In May 2022, the FirstNet Authority Board of Directors voted to make a multimillion-dollar investment to expand FirstNet’s indoor coverage via small cell technology, offering an additional layer of network resiliency and delivering the capability to deploy the service wherever and whenever needed. Providing reliable indoor connectivity is critical for FirstNet because the vast majority of public safety responders (911 centers, fire stations, police stations, etc.) have indicated that over half of their time is spent indoors.

Around 80% of consumed data is indoors. It is encouraging to see such investment in FirstNet, and other public safety networks should take similar actions. Most of the public safety networks have been (and will be) deployed with 4G, but they will eventually upgrade to 5G. Ensuring good indoor coverage with 5G can be challenging because the higher frequency used by 5G is more prone to signal propagation limitation than 4G. To overcome this, it is essential to consider indoor solutions, such as small cells or distributed antenna systems. Small cell is a cost-effective solution that extends coverage and boosts capacity. With more open radio access network small cells reaching the market in the next two to three years, there will be a further drop in the cost of small cells. Also, many 4G small cells are future-proof and offer plug-and-play experiences, enabling simple and quick installation.



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