ORLANDO – AT&T, Inc., said today that it is emphasizing the value of public safety Band 14 in the nationwide public safety broadband network it is building for the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), while also acknowledging other bands that will be used by first responders. The company also said it plans to eliminate any gaps it has in coverage compared to Verizon Communications, Inc., said it is pleased with the number of subscribers it has signed up so far, said most of its initial construction would be completed in less than four years, and criticized Verizon’s planned public safety core and the fact that it did not deploy preemption nationwide by the end of 2017.
Yesterday, FirstNet announced the issuance of a task order to AT&T to begin building radio access networks (RANs) with Band 14 in all 50 states, five territories, and the District of Columbia (TR Daily, March 7). FirstNet and AT&T emphasized in news releases the value of Band 14. AT&T plans this year to touch more than one-third of its cell sites to add Band 14 and deploy Band 14 to 95% of the U.S. population over the next five years.
In an interview this afternoon with TR Daily in conjunction with the IWCE show here, Chris Sambar, AT&T’s senior vice president-FirstNet, said, “I think it’s important for public safety to understand that they get what we call the all-band solution,” which includes spectrum in the 700 megahertz, 800 MHz, 1.9 gigahertz, and even millimeter-wave bands. “But they also understand that Band 14 has some unique attributes to it, and I don’t want anyone to think that we’re not rolling it out broadly,” Mr. Sambar added.
“It’s got unique attributes, you know, things like high-power user equipment, the fact that it’s a low-band piece of spectrum,” he said. But he said that “it’s not the panacea. And there are other spectrum bands that can perform well depending on your location to the … tower.”
For example, he said if a person is one or two miles from a tower, it probably doesn’t matter which of AT&T’s bands carries the traffic. But if the person is six or seven miles from the tower and there is lots of noise, Band 14 would be more beneficial, especially if the user has a device to extend the range, he said. “We’re kind of walking a line here, right?” Mr. Sambar added.
In an interview with TR Daily last August (TR Daily, Aug. 16, 2017), Mr. Sambar said, “Users shouldn’t be worried what band they’re on.” He added, “I always like to say … the magic of FirstNet doesn’t happen on Band 14, the magic of FirstNet happens in AT&T’s network. … So they should feel happy and comfortable in the fact that they have multiple bands to choose from on AT&T’s network and not just one.”
At a Senate hearing last year (TR Daily, July 20, 2017), Mr. Sambar sparked controversy when he was asked whether AT&T planned to build out Band 14 “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.
He said today that he didn’t have the 95% build-out figure at that point and that AT&T calculated the percentage in response to the hearing.
Mr. Sambar was asked to respond to Verizon’s pitch, including at this week’s show, that first responders should sign up with it because it has superior coverage. “No one denies that some carriers work better in certain areas than other carriers. There’s places where we work better than Verizon, and there’s places where Verizon works better than AT&T,” he said. “And I expect that people will make decisions based on the network that they think performs the best in the area that they’re in. Any gap that we have to Verizon, our plan is to close that gap and close it as quickly as possible.”
He said that AT&T has committed to building thousands of additional cell sites in response to requests from states on where additional coverage is needed. “And so we believe we’re going to close all of those gaps that we have to Verizon and then go past that, and we’re going to have the best coverage in the country,” Mr. Sambar declared.
But Mr. Sambar also emphasized that its offering to first responders “goes far beyond just coverage” and also includes the core, encryption, a security operations center, preemption and priority service, an apps store, deployable equipment, and other features.
AT&T yesterday announced that “more than 350 agencies across more than 40 states and territories are already taking advantage of FirstNet services.” The carrier said that those agencies “make up nearly 30,000 connections on the network. These connections range from smartphones to in-vehicle modems and more.”
Mr. Sambar said the company is pleased with those numbers. “We’re pretty proud of what we’ve done so far. It’s really been two months that we’ve been selling in earnest,” he said, although he said some current subscribers migrated to the FirstNet service last year. He said that just more than half of states have state purchasing contracts in place with AT&T, which allow agencies to sign up using such contracts, although they don’t have to wait for that. “It’s not a short process,” he said of getting state purchasing contracts signed.
Mr. Sambar also said that most of its five-year initial build-out will occur in less than four years, and that the percentage of what it is supposed to be built this year, a figure that is not public, will be more than doubled. “We’ll get the vast majority of it done in three, three and a half years,” he said. “And then the last year and a half, is going to be those sites that are just really hard to get on for one reason or another,” including zoning rules or other complications.
Mr. Sambar also said that testing of AT&T’s public safety core, which will be completed by the end of this month, started almost a month ago. It will take about two months for FirstNet to test it. He also worked to differentiate AT&T’s core from Verizon’s public safety core, which that carrier said would be done by the end of this month.
“We’re not taking a slice off our commercial core or a virtual core, as other carriers have said they they’re doing,” he said. “Ours will be physically separate.”
“It’s not shared equipment, it’s not [a] software-defined network,” Mr. Sambar added. “And that’s important because that’s specifically what public safety asked for in the RFP.”
In response to AT&T and FirstNet criticism of Verizon’s public safety core, Verizon spokesman Kevin King said yesterday, “We are building our core on dedicated resources, but it would be foolish to not embrace software defined networking (SDN) and other technologies designed to future proof network development and enhance operations for public safety customers.”
In response to Mr. Sambar’s criticism today, Mr. King said, “We said we’d use dedicated resources to build our core; however, we’re not interested in responding to pot shots in the media. Our focus is continuing to serve public safety.”
Yesterday, Verizon said it planned to deploy nationwide preemption by the end of this month after trialing the service for about three months. AT&T deployed preemption nationwide at the end of 2017.
Mr. Sambar questioned whether Verizon would offer always-on preemption nationwide, as he says AT&T has. “That’s what public safety wants,” he said. He also criticized Verizon for not rolling that service out at the end of 2017. When it announced its public safety broadband offering last year, Verizon said preemption would be available by the end of last year (TR Daily, Aug. 15, 2017).
Mr. King did not respond to questions by TR Daily’s deadline today about whether the carrier planned to have always-on preemption available by the end of this month, and he did not respond to Mr. Sambar’s criticism of Verizon’s preemption offering to date.
“We’re being held accountable, clearly,” Mr. Sambar concluded in today’s interview. “Everything that we do is certified by the First Responder Network Authority.” —Paul Kirby, firstname.lastname@example.org