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Wireless First Responder Net: Monopoly or Competition?

While UC vendors are fumbling to achieve relevance in the mobile space, an important battle is heating up over the next generation of wireless technology for first responders. This noble objective is now coming into contact with the realities of business, and the two largest mobile operators, AT&T and Verizon, are locked in a battle that will define the shape of first responder communications for the coming decades.

This story began in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy, when the U.S. government began looking at ways to improve wireless communications services for first responders. Under the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, Congress created the First Responder Network Authority (FRNA) to build and maintain an interoperable nationwide public safety broadband network (NPSBN).

Following a lengthy review process, in March 2017 the FRNA awarded the FirstNet network contract to AT&T, which will receive $7 billion and exclusive use of a valuable swath of frequency in the 700-MHz range called Band 14. In turn, AT&T pledged to invest $40 billion of its own money in the network over the 25-year life of the contract. The network will be available exclusively to first responders and other agencies (e.g., ambulance companies, hospitals, electric utilities, etc.) involved in responding to civil emergencies.

That would be the entire story except that Verizon, which claims to be the largest wireless provider for the public safety community, is proposing its own unnamed NPSBN offering to compete with FirstNet. Both sides are now settling into their positions to battle for this multibillion-dollar market.

AT&T: On the Run to Band 14

The biggest problem in building any wireless network of this scale is the radio access network (RAN). FirstNet requires every state to have a RAN that connects to the FirstNet core. AT&T will upgrade its RANs in the states that "opt in" to support FirstNet, leaving any state that wanted to opt out having to build its own public safety RAN supporting Band 14 connectivity. That need to build a statewide RAN pretty much assured that all 50 states would opt in, as they did -- by way of illustration, consider that the public cellular networks today use more than 200,000 towers to cover the U.S.

However, AT&T didn't actually need to build a public safety RAN; that would be crazy expensive. Rather, AT&T committed to upgrading its existing cell sites to support Band 14. That upgrade is underway, and AT&T has said it expects to have 12,000 to 15,000 sites equipped by the end of the year. That's still fewer than 10% of AT&T's cell sites.

The device industry is responding to the requirement by introducing Band 14-compatible devices. The FirstNet website lists Band 14-certified devices from Apple (iPads but not iPhones yet), Cradlepoint, Motorola Solutions, Samsung, and Sonim.

In normal operation, Band 14 will support public safety traffic along with traffic from the general public. However, using features inherent in the 3GPP cellular protocols, AT&T can effectively prioritize traffic from public safety users over regular network traffic. It has built a separate backbone, or Enhanced Packet Core (EPC), exclusively for first responder traffic while public traffic shares the RAN.

The unique feature of Band 14 is that in the event of a major emergency, public safety agencies can preempt public traffic on Band 14 and dedicate it exclusively to first responders. Regular network users can still make and receive calls and have access to other services, but not on Band 14. So while AT&T hasn't yet delivered on a nationwide Band 14 RAN, the guarantee of a dedicated public safety channel when needed is a big draw for FirstNet.

Continue to Page 2: Verizon's strategy, voice calling, and more