Federal First Responder Project Presents Juicy Telecom Opportunity

Competition in telecom price and service packages has been getting a lot of attention lately. However, network providers also have been pursuing other opportunities that consumers might miss if they’re exposed only to traditional advertising. AT&T’s cooperation with the U.S. government in developing a national emergency responder network is a case in point.

AT&T moved quickly to take the first steps toward launching the network since late March, when the U.S. Commerce Department chose it to be the government’s partner for establishing the responder system.

The company and the initial group of tech businesses involved in the project “have had an extremely productive month collaborating on a number of priorities, such as state plans and the development of an online portal that will be used to deliver the plans to the states and territories,” said Mike Poth, CEO of FirstNet, in a recent online post.

“We have also had initial discussions regarding the FirstNet core network architecture,” he added.

As project leader, the company is charged with providing 50 states and several territories with draft plans for participation in the national network linking emergency service agencies.

The FirstNet Partnership

The Commerce Department will provide 20 Mhz of broadband spectrum and US$6.5 billion in initial funding to the partnership.

AT&T will deploy and operate a nationwide high-speed broadband network dedicated to police, fire, ambulance services and other first responders. Over a projected duration of 25 years, AT&T expects to invest nearly $40 billion in the effort.

FirstNet, an agency established within the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, will administer the program on behalf of the federal government. Congress established the First Responder Network Authority — or FirstNet — in 2012 to create a much-needed nationwide interoperable broadband network dedicated exclusively to first responder agencies.

The need for better communication and coordination among such agencies on a national basis was revealed during the 2001 terrorist attack in New York. Currently, first responders use commercial networks — the same ones used by consumers and businesses — for mobile data and applications.

That can become problematic during a public safety crisis, when commercial networks become overwhelmed, noted AT&T.

First responders use more than 10,000 networks for voice communications, which often lack interoperability, the company pointed out. That severely limits first responders’ ability to communicate with each other when responding to a situation.

The law establishing FirstNet calls for the deployment and operation of the network on a single, national architecture. FirstNet will hold the spectrum license for the network, and it will be responsible for taking “all actions necessary” to build, deploy and operate the system in consultation with federal, state, tribal and local responder agencies, as well as other key stakeholders.

IT and Telecom Opportunities

Initial technical support will come from Motorola Solutions, General Dynamics, Sapient Consulting, and Inmarsat Government, AT&T reported, but there will be room for other providers.

“Our FirstNet team includes small business subcontractors who fit the Department of Commerce’s subcontracting goals and category designations as appropriate for federal government procurements,” said Chris Sambar, AT&T’s senior vice president for FirstNet.

Among the team members are “service-disabled veterans, HubZone small businesses, women-owned small businesses, and service-disabled veteran-owned small businesses,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

The FirstNet effort also could provide opportunities for innovation in network technologies and open the door for more business participants. When the network scheme first was floated after enactment of the 2012 legislation, some skeptics contended that the proposed technology would be obsolete before the system was completed. Both FirstNet and AT&T take issue with that view.

“FirstNet and AT&T will innovate and evolve the network to keep the public safety community at the forefront of technology advances. For example, as 5G network capabilities develop in the coming years, FirstNet and AT&T will work together to provide the exponential increases in the speed with which video and data travel across the FirstNet network,” AT&T said. Other examples of potential innovations:

  • Further the development of public safety-focused Internet of Things and smart city solutions, such as providing near real-time information on traffic conditions to determine the fastest route to an emergency.
  • Enable advanced capabilities, such as wearable sensors and cameras for police and firefighters, and camera-equipped drones and robots that can deliver near real-time images of events such as fires, floods or crimes.

“Today, public safety is treated the same as other commercial or enterprise users on wireless communications networks,” noted FirstNet Chief Technology Officer Jeff Bratcher.

“With the FirstNet network, public safety will have the priority access, capacity, and resilient, hardened connections that they don’t have today,” he told the E-Commerce Times. “This will allow them to take advantage of advanced technologies, tools and services — for every day and for every emergency — to help save lives and protect communities.”

A key requirement of the agreement calls for the company to prepare individual draft participation plans for the governors of U.S. states and territories. States may opt in or opt out of the FirstNet program, but if they opt out, their own networks must be compatible with FirstNet.

“We are expecting to deliver draft state plans in June with final plans expected to be delivered in the fall,” said AT&T’s Sambar.

Commercial Impact for AT&T

While AT&T will prioritize first responder use of the network, the company will be able to access the 20 Mhz of spectrum provided through the FirstNet license when not in use for public safety purposes, according to the agreement with the Commerce Department. As a result, AT&T could gain some commercial leverage.

“I don’t see how it doesn’t,” observed David Krebs, executive vice president at VDC Research.

“Securing access to valuable frequency is the currency of today’s carriers and a critical differentiator,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

“One question we have is what impact this has for existing public safety/first responder customers of competing providers, such as Verizon and others,” he said.

Experience gained in utilizing sensors and wearables could be a plus, AT&T acknowledged, noting further that it also will have the ability to connect FirstNet users to the company’s telecom network assets, which are valued at more than $180 billion.

However, AT&T’s ability to generate a direct profit from the venture has yet to be determined, according to Krebs, who said the issue is “lacking much clarity” at this time.

“Initially, AT&T will look to engage individual states by shouldering the capital expenditure heavy investments to build out the infrastructure, and leverage existing infrastructure as available,” he observed.

“This will ultimately be funded by service or subscription fees by the users. However, what that service fee will be — especially in the context of the massive infrastructure investments and the fairly finite user pool — remains a huge unknown,” said Krebs.

There has been a great deal of speculation that cell tower operators also could benefit from the project, he pointed out.

Although it is unclear which specific companies would benefit, Krebs said, some of the leading providers in the sector should be well positioned to participate in the venture.

John K. Higgins

John K. Higgins has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2009. His main areas of focus are U.S. government technology issues such as IT contracting, cybersecurity, privacy, cloud technology, big data and e-commerce regulation. As a freelance journalist and career business writer, he has written for numerous publications, includingThe Corps Report and Business Week.Email John.

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