FirstNet Touts Benefit of Network at Boston Marathon

First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) officials today touted the benefit of employing the public safety broadband network being built by AT&T, Inc., at the recent Boston Marathon, particularly compared to the event five years ago that was marred by deadly bombings. The earlier race saw commercial wireless networks overwhelmed and first responders did not have the broadband offerings available now.

FirstNet officials mentioned the marathon as they and AT&T representatives today continued to hail what they said were the reasons that public safety agencies should subscribe to the FirstNet system rather than alternatives. For example, they stressed that AT&T’s dedicated public safety core used hardware that was separate from the rest of its network, the security of the system, and the 25-year public-private partnership between FirstNet and AT&T that calls for FirstNet to provide governance over AT&T as the network is built and maintained.

Verizon Communications, Inc., is offering a competing public safety broadband offering that also offers priority and preemption, although it does not use separate hardware for the public safety core. Verizon spokesman Kevin King has said that the carrier built its “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.”

“During this year’s marathon, the First Responder Network Authority (First Responder Authority) team and AT&T were on hand to distribute 80 FirstNet devices to fire, police and incident response teams from the cities of Boston and Brookline. Thirty of these phones were outfitted with SIM cards and connected to the dedicated FirstNet core,” Michael Varney, FirstNet’s Region 1 lead, said in a blog posting today. “First responders participating in the demonstration used FirstNet-ready devices with push-to-talk and land mobile radio integration applications. These first responders also had an opportunity to test out FirstNet’s core that operates with physically separate hardware and is built as a highly secure, resilient, and redundant network. The core is what distinguishes FirstNet from other commercially available networks that can become overloaded and useless during large-scale events.”

“In addition, fire and police used location tracking applications with new capabilities for coordination response efforts to track personnel and resources,” Mr. Varney added. “For the first time, the Boston Fire Department were able to see the exact position of individual responders displayed on screens in their communications center and mobile command units. Commanders knew which responder was closest to an incident and made real-time decisions to dispatch the closest responder saving valuable time.  Similarly, the Boston Police Department used the tracking software to pinpoint the lead runners in all major race categories. From a public safety perspective, tracing the fastest runners proved valuable for making decisions about crowd control and street closings.”

FirstNet Chief Executive Officer Mike Poth cited the marathon public safety coverage in remarks this morning at the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials-International’s Public Safety Broadband Summit.

He stressed that FirstNet would continue outreach to public safety, “and we’re going to advocate for them” to AT&T and others to ensure that the network met their needs over time. He noted that 17 devices had been certified on the network and an apps ecosystem had been launched.

“Were going to need everyone working together to make it possible,” Mr. Poth said.

During a subsequent session, Alex Rafii, federal manager for AT&T’s FirstNet program, worked to sell the benefit of the system over other choices, as did David Buchanan, FirstNet’s director-public safety advocacy.

AT&T says that it has activated about 60,000 connections on the network for nearly 650 agencies in 48 states.

“Our sole responsibility is to advocate for public safety,” including passing along input for network enhancements, Mr. Buchanan said. He also said FirstNet, as a government-created entity, is uniquely positioned to engage with other nations, standards bodies, tribal entities, and federal partners. Since Jan. 1, he said, it has been involved in more than 400 engagements that reached more than 20,000 stakeholders.

During another session, Scott Agnew, assistant vice president for AT&T’s public sector, outlined FirstNet’s apps ecosystem. He said that while users on the network could use apps from commercial stores, those available in the FirstNet app store would be certified as secure. More than a dozen apps have gone through the certification process, he said. Hundreds of apps developers have signed up so far, Mr. Agnew added. Only FirstNet subscribers have access to the FirstNet apps store. —Paul Kirby, paul.kirby@wolterskluwer.com