TRDaily Reports: AT&T, Verizon Executives Defend Plans for Public Safety Networks

AT&T, Inc., and Verizon Communications, Inc., executives today defended and clarified their companies’ plans for deploying nationwide public safety networks, in the wake of criticism on matters such as the deployment of public safety grade facilities, the use of public safety Band 14, and interoperability between the two. The remarks were delivered at a Washington meeting of the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC).

In his comments, Chris Sambar, senior vice president-FirstNet for AT&T, which is the First Responder Network Authority’s (FirstNet) network partner, apologized for “comments that I made that may have been misleading” concerning whether AT&T was committed to deploying a public safety grade network. “If my comments misled or concerned anyone, please know that we are absolutely 100% committed,” he said.

At a Senate hearing in July, Mr. Sambar was asked by Sen. Roger Wicker (R., Miss.) if AT&T’s commercial network is considered “public safety grade.” Mr. Sambar said there is no definition for that, but he said AT&T’s network is built “in a manner that is as reliable as possible.” The remark drew concern from some in the public safety community.

Last month, NPSTC released a statement expressing disappointment in AT&T statement that there is no consensus definition for public safety grade (TR Daily, Aug. 18).

At today’s meeting, Mr. Sambar praised a 2014 NPSTC report that defined public safety grade systems (TR Daily, May 23, 2014). He also stressed efforts by AT&T to protect 30 central offices and other assets in the Hurricane Harvey flood zone.

“As you noted in your report, it’s not reasonable to think that every single tower will be at the same level of public safety grade … but there does need to be some ranking,” Mr. Sambar said, saying that microwave and fiber hub locations are more important, as are cell sites relied on by public safety answering points (PSAPs).

He said AT&T has talked with states about the sites they consider to be particularly important, saying that a western state gave the carrier a list of 600 locations that it said need to be public safety grade.

Mr. Sambar also said he has heard “rumors” that AT&T will not deploy Band 14. In response to a question from Sen. Wicker at the July hearing about whether AT&T planned to build out Band 14 public safety spectrum “only where it is economically viable,” Mr. Sambar replied, “We are building Band Class 14 where we need the capacity in our network,” which will be done on a tower-by-tower basis.

That statement drew criticism from some people who say that public safety fought for Band 14 because that is the best band for the community’s use.

“We’re going to build out Band 14 broadly across our network,” Mr. Sambar said today. “We’re using it for capacity and coverage both.” In rural areas, AT&T will use the spectrum for coverage when it builds new towers, he said. He predicted that the carrier would deploy more than half the spectrum within the five-year initial build out and nearly everywhere over the 25-year life of the FirstNet contract. But he also noted that first responders will also use AT&T’s commercial LTE spectrum and said they won’t know which bands they are on.

Mr. Sambar also suggested that permitting other carriers to interoperate with AT&T’s dedicated FirstNet core will introduce security vulnerabilities into the network, citing, for example, Chinese hardware that some other carriers may use. “We’re not comfortable with that,” he said. He asked whether AT&T should have to allow interoperability with a U.S. mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) run by China Telecom.

Earlier at today’s meeting, a Verizon executive defended the company’s plans to offer priority service and preemption to public safety customers while building a dedicated public safety core (TR Daily, Aug. 15), saying that it doesn’t see itself as a competitor of FirstNet and wants its offering to be interoperable with the FirstNet system.

In the wake of Verizon’s announcement last month, some public safety advocates have questioned whether the company’s offering will undermine FirstNet and AT&T and whether it will be interoperable with the FirstNet service. Some also have asked why Verizon didn’t submit a bid for the FirstNet contract won by AT&T.

Don Brittingham, Verizon’s vice president-public safety policy, said that as it planned its public safety service, the company “understood that many in the public safety community might not view us in a good way, including our friends at FirstNet. … Our focus here is really to be complementary to FirstNet, and everyone might not see it that way initially.”

“We don’t view FirstNet as a competitor. We view them as a program that we want to be able to support,” Mr. Brittingham added.

But he also emphasized the importance for the public safety community of having “competitive choices,” which he said will “drive innovation” and favorable pricing. “We certainly believe that competition is important,” Mr. Brittingham said, but “we also know that none of that matters if you don’t have interoperability. … We are committed to be interoperable.”

He said it will be up to FirstNet to ensure there is “an umbrella framework” that ensures interoperability and an open ecosystem, including for apps. He said Verizon hopes to meet with FirstNet to ensure that its network can be interoperable with AT&T/FirstNet services. A particular challenge involves push-to-talk or other apps, as well as identity management.

He also said the company has used NPSTC’s public safety grade report as “a guide for us in how we build and operate our networks.” He said that “in almost every respect” Verizon meets or, “in many cases,” exceeds “what those standards require.”

Most of the areas where it doesn’t involve apps such as PTT, Mr. Brittingham said, including a PTT service that is fully interoperable with LMR and is moving to mission-critical voice. Another involves deployables and having stand-alone operations if the network is not operable, he said. Verizon is committed to rolling out devices that can use Band 14 so its public safety customers can also use FirstNet system, he stressed.

He said in response to a question that Verizon doesn’t have a data roaming agreement with AT&T and doesn’t think that one is necessary.  “I don’t see the roaming issue as being critical here,” he said. But he added, “We’re open to that.”

Mr. Brittingham also responded to criticism of Verizon about why it didn’t submit a bid in response to FirstNet’s request for proposals (RFP).

“For Verizon, we viewed the RFP as a spectrum arrangement,” he said. “Verizon has never had any interest in the spectrum. … It wasn’t about commercializing the spectrum.” But he said Verizon is committed to meeting the needs of public safety, noting that it will offer priority access immediately and plans to offer preemption by the end of this year or early next year. He said the public safety core will be ready in the first quarter of 2018 — the same timeframe as the FirstNet public safety core.

In response to another question, Mr. Brittingham said Verizon plans to establish a public safety advisory committee with input from FirstNet. “Obviously, FirstNet’s input in this is critical,” he added. —Paul Kirby,

Courtesy TRDaily