• AT&T positions its public safety network, FirstNet, not only as a highly significant win and lucrative opportunity, but also as the highest-performing, fastest, most secure wireless communications network for first responders.
• While Verizon may do less marketing, it remains a very strong player in the public sector, with its own benefits for first responders and a somewhat different approach to the market than its rival.
When AT&T won the FirstNet deal in 2017, it was seen as a major coup for the carrier and a big blow to mobile operator rivals. FirstNet is an independent authority within the U.S. Department of Commerce, authorized by Congress in 2012, with the mission to develop, build, and operate a nationwide, broadband network that equips first responders to save lives and protect U.S. communities. In 2017, after an open RFP process, a public-private partnership was forged between the federal government and AT&T. FirstNet agreed to provide 20 MHz of telecommunications spectrum and success-based payments of $6.5 billion over the next five years to support the network buildout; AT&T will spend about $40 billion over the life of the contract to build, deploy, operate, and maintain the network, with a focus on ensuring robust coverage for public safety. AT&T can also use FirstNet’s spectrum when it is not being used by public safety for other, commercial purposes but it must prioritize first responders over any commercial users. As of May 2019, AT&T had connected approximately 600,000 wireless devices to the network from 7,250 agencies, and offers FirstNet on Band 14 spectrum in 600 markets, roughly 50% of its eventual proposed coverage. The operator notes that 50% of these agencies are new to AT&T and were not just upgrades from existing customers. AT&T doesn’t just provide wireless connectivity to first responders (for both phones/tablets/fleets and IoT devices), but offers applications, specialized devices, enhanced security solutions, and satellite options. Flying Cells on Wings (COWS) were recently introduced, comprised of two tethered drones and a trailer equipped with a satellite dish and fiber connections, which are well suited to provide connectivity in hard to reach locations for emergencies such as wildfires and earthquakes.
Although all 50 states agreed to the original FirstNet proposal, this doesn’t mean that AT&T is guaranteed to be the wireless carrier for all public safety agencies. These agencies as well as the local, state, and federal organizations to which they may report are free to select what every carrier they want. They can also mix and match, with some lines or functions provided by an alternative carrier for backup, diversity, or coverage issues.
Verizon has always been strong in the public sector and in the public safety segment. It too has a dedicated core, with which it can provide prioritization and pre-emption for crucial communications. Verizon notes that it holds a more than 450,000 square mile network coverage advantage over AT&T and that it has partnered with first responders for decades. Its Responder Private Core is part of its 4G LTE network design, is free to qualified agencies, and intelligently manages traffic between commercial and public safety customers. Other benefits of Verizon in this space include its reputation for network reliability (key for voice and 911 calls as well as data), and its ability to anticipate needs, with more “feet on the street” than competitors. While AT&T may do more marketing, Verizon uses credibility, network reliability, and local personnel as key value propositions and considers itself to be a dominant public sector carrier. It also believes in interoperability between its network and Land Mobile Radio (LMR) or other wireless networks and supports multi-carrier push to talk (PTT). Verizon views FirstNet as a good thing because it makes Verizon “run faster” in public safety, and forces it to innovate. For example, it has a relationship with AXON for LTE-enabled body cameras (as does AT&T) and its 5G labs in DC are designing new public safety capabilities such as drone mapping, VR goggles for firefighting, and remote telecare for hospitals. Its perspective is that AT&T faces financial penalties if they do not get enough subscribers on the network so they may end up with more people and devices getting priority than is necessary. Verizon offers different levels of priority for first responders but it doesn’t give priority to everyone since it doesn’t need to meet thresholds. Verizon also has advanced solutions that it offers to both public sector and commercial customers such as mobile device management, advanced mapping, event notification, a tactical messaging gateway, COWS, ruggedized multi-band devices, PTT, and fleet management.
Not only is there competition for public safety deals between AT&T and Verizon, but Sprint and T-Mobile also offer some solutions, while satellite providers, MVNOs, ITSPs, and specialists such as Motorola Solutions are strong players whose offerings may coexist with, complement, or directly compete against those of the operators. The bottom line is that the market remains competitive. While FirstNet certainly provides AT&T with a unique position in the market, Verizon and other providers still have a strong stake.