TR Daily FirstNet Issues RAN Task Order; AT&T, Verizon Trade Barbs
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Wednesday, March 7, 2018

FirstNet Issues RAN Task Order; AT&T, Verizon Trade Barbs

ORLANDO – The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) announced today that it has issued a task order to AT&T, Inc., to begin building radio access networks (RANs) with public safety Band 14 in states, territories, and the District of Columbia.

Meanwhile, AT&T and FirstNet on one side and Verizon Communications, Inc., on the other traded barbs at the IWCE show here today as the carriers try to convince public safety agencies to sign up for their public safety broadband offerings. Particular sources of contention include the quality of the public safety core that Verizon plans to deploy by the end of this month and the fact that it currently doesn’t offer nationwide preemption, and the advantage that Verizon says its network gives it over AT&T.

“We’re looking forward to a rapid buildout and expansion,” FirstNet Chief Executive Officer Mike Poth said this morning during keynote remarks at the IWCE show, noting that the task order was issued yesterday. The issuance of the task order comes in the wake of the decision by all 56 states, territories, and D.C. to opt into the network and have AT&T, FirstNet’s network partner, build their RANs (TR Daily, Jan. 19).

AT&T announced in a news release today 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.”

During other keynote remarks this morning, Thaddeus Arroyo, CEO of AT&T Business, which is responsible for building out the FirstNet system under a 25-year contract, stressed that AT&T’s preemption offering is “available all the time” and automatic once it is set up.

“FirstNet is the only nationwide platform that gives first responders this priority and the preemption every day and around the clock,” he added.

Mr. Arroyo also emphasized that the public safety core that AT&T expects to complete as scheduled this month is built only for first responders and will include end-to-end encryption. “It’s much more than a virtual private network with fast lines over an existing commercial network,” he said, without mentioning Verizon by name. “A shared solution over a commercial network is just not good enough.”

In its news release today, AT&T highlighted that its core is being constructed “on physically separate hardware.”

Mr. Arroyo also said that Band 14 will be used to provide “more coverage, better capabilities, and more capacity across the country” and that AT&T plans this year to touch more than one-third of its cell sites to add Band 14. In the next five years, it plans to deploy it across the network. AT&T says that Band 14 will be deployed to 95% of the U.S. population. Mr. Arroyo noted that devices capable of accessing Band 14 have already been announced.

“We know that we’re being trusted here with an unprecedented responsibility,” Mr. Arroyo said. “We’re going to hold ourselves accountable. … We’re also being held accountable by the First Responder Network Authority.”

In his remarks this morning, Mr. Poth also stressed that AT&T is building “a dedicated public safety core, not in addition to some of their other commercial traffic.” “That is a big, big deal,” he added.

He said that FirstNet staff are “starting to kick the tires” on the AT&T core and said that it plans “extensive, exhaustive testing” of it over a month or so before it is deployed.

In a news release today on the RAN deployment task order, Jeff Bratcher, FirstNet’s chief technology officer and operations director, said that AT&T’s core “will be the first-ever and only dedicated core infrastructure built specifically for public safety in the country.”

In keynote remarks this afternoon, Michael Maiorana, senior vice president–public sector for Verizon Enterprise Solutions, announced that Verizon, which he said has been trialing preemption over the past three months or so, “will have preemption enabled on our network nationwide by the end of this quarter.” He also said that its public safety core is on track to be ready by the end of this month.

He also responded to criticisms of Verizon’s public safety offering and touted its history of serving the public safety market, where it has said it has about a 60% market share.

“It’s not by accident that Verizon has the majority of the current public safety marketplace,” he said. “We’ve been working at it long and hard for many, many years, and we’ve got trusted relationships at federal, state, and local that we are going to continue to leverage and drive.”

Mr. Maiorana also touted Verizon’s network, citing a RootMetrics study that rated it the best overall network in the U.S. for nine years in a row. He said it has a 400,000-square-mile LTE coverage advantage over the closest competitor.

“I think that sometimes we forget that an application or a device or even priority and preemption are really only as good as the network that they are running on,” he said. “And it’s not by accident that Verizon continues to be the leading commercial network provider in America. … It meets the needs of most, if not all, of our public safety clients.”

He also stressed that Verizon has a number of public sector customers in the federal government, including the Department of Defense, saying that if they trust the carrier, state and local agencies should as well.

Mr. Maiorana said that while some carriers say they plan to improve coverage or harden cell sites, Verizon has focused on that for years, investing $111 billion since 2000.

He said Verizon has met with a number of public safety representatives and learned “from you about your biggest pain points.”

He also said that Verizon plans to offer a mission-critical push-to-talk (PTT) offering later this year and noted that it has a separate private network offering for customers that provides network traffic management and mobile device management capabilities. He also said it is working on an open application ecosystem.

But Mr. Maiorana bemoaned the fact that FirstNet will not permit Verizon or other carriers to interoperate with AT&T’s FirstNet system on capabilities such as priority service, preemption, PTT, and applications.

In an interview with TR Daily after his speech, Mr. Maiorana said, “We’d be very interested in getting into a room with AT&T and FirstNet to come out of that room with better overall capabilities that can be implemented in a much swifter way for public safety.”

Mr. Maiorana also said that Verizon’s public safety core will be just as good as AT&T’s.

Verizon spokesman Kevin King added, “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.”

Mr. Maiorana also said that coverage and reliability help Verizon differentiate itself from AT&T.

“It’s an arms race and just because AT&T says they’re going to start investing in more coverage or more network hardening, if Verizon stood still it’d take decades to catch up and we’re not standing still, we’re moving forward,” Mr. Maiorana said.

He would not comment on how many customers it has signed up for its service or how many preemption trials it has conducted.

During his speech and in the interview, he addressed the criticism of Verizon by those in the public safety community who have expressed frustration that Verizon did not submit a bid in response to FirstNet’s request for proposals (RFP), saying that the carrier already had the necessary spectrum, coverage, and a significant public safety customer base. He also said that Verizon supported reallocation to public safety of the 20 megahertz of 700 MHz band spectrum licensed to FirstNet.

“I wouldn’t say that they’re angry,” he told TR Daily of first responders. “I would say that if they’re educated, they’ll understand, and our job is to educate our customers.”

He again stressed the importance of having a superior network.

“If you don’t have air, it doesn’t matter what you’re having for dinner,” he said. “I believe that people have been trying to get the conversation to other areas that maybe put more focus on what is going to come and not enough focus on what has to be there before what else is going to come.”

William Bratton, the former commissioner of both the New York City and Boston Police departments and former chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, participated in the interview with Mr. Maiorana. Mr. Bratton is a senior managing director at Teneo, a global advisory firm, and a consultant to Verizon.

Mr. Bratton complained that “what effectively is being created by FirstNet and its provider, AT&T, is a monopoly” that is “incompatible” with other wireless providers. He also complained that the process has been secretive. —Paul Kirby, [email protected]

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