Verizon offers public safety alternative to AT&T and FirstNet

As AT&T talks up rapid progress in uptake of its FirstNet public safety network, Verizon does not want to be left out of the first responder party. It says it will invest in specialized functionality in its LTE network, to support emergency workers, and will give them priority access.

Verizon says it will create a private core network dedicated to public safety, which would enable priority access to its LTE network at “no extra charge”,  and the kind of capabilities which are essential to this sector, including high reliability and group calling.

“The network core manages and directs all command functions like network access and call routing,” the operator said in a statement, promising to invest in “new mission-critical 4G LTE voice communications … such as push-to-talk” to complement existing services.

The 3GPP has been adding specifications for public safety requirements like group calls to its standards, amid controversy in many countries over the ability of the public LTE network to support critical communications.

Verizon also says that it will make devices available for Band 14, the 700 MHz spectrum used by FirstNet, to ensure “full interoperability” between its own services and FirstNet.

One key difference between this private initiative and the public-private AT&T/FirstNet roll-out is that the latter requires the states to opt in to the system and, if they do so, to pay towards the services. By contrast, Verizon said: “Verizon’s public safety network solution does not require that states opt out of FirstNet, does not require access to any federal funding provided to FirstNet, and does not require any financial commitment from states to support network deployment.”

Despite these attractions, there will be concern that if there are competitive solutions for safety, the economics of FirstNet may be weakened, and there will be risks of a return to fragmentation, despite Verizon’s assurances of interworking with Band 14.

The US has been trying to achieve a single, national, interoperable network for all first responders since the fragmentation of the existing communications systems was highlighted by the 9/11 attacks. The aim is to unify about 10,000 voice services currently in use by different authorities and states, and to add broadband wireless capabilities.

It has been a long process. The original idea was to auction a block of 700 MHz spectrum, during the 2007 auction, to support a network that would give guaranteed priority access to first responders, while also running commercial services. That block failed to reach its reserve price, revealing the challenges of the public-private approach – the heavy responsibilities for the operator, in terms of reliability and availability, and the limited revenue upside potential.

Many attempts later, the structure of the arrangement was changed and in 2012 the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) was formed, to establish and run the network, in 20 MHz of spectrum allocated by Congress in the 700 MHz band, and with a $7bn budget. In March, AT&T was awarded a five-year deal to build and operate the network. Under that contract, FirstNet will provide AT&T with the spectrum and success-based payments totalling $6.5bn over five years. AT&T will spend about $40bn over that period on building and running the network, and ensuring full coverage. It will also connect FirstNet users to its own telecoms networks.

And AT&T insists FirstNet will bring superior services to those available on a standard public 4G network, as promised by Verizon. It told LightReading: “What we’re offering to public safety through our private-public partnership will exceed anything they’ve previously been offered in the marketplace. FirstNet is bringing public safety a superior network and ecosystem with specialized features, including increased coverage and capacity along with priority and pre-emption, so first responder subscribers can be confident that the network will be there when and where they need it – 24/7/365, like their mission.”

AT&T says take-up of FirstNet has gone more quickly than it expected, with 13 of the 50 states opting in so far, the most recent being Kansas. The operator has started rolling out the network in some of the states which have already opted in and expects the full national deployment to be underway by December.

The carrier’s CFO John Stephens told a recent Oppenheimer technology investor conference that it had a highly cost- and time-efficient plan for deploying the FirstNet system. It is likely to harness its underused WCS (2.3 GHz) spectrum in addition to the 20 MHz in Band 14 from FirstNet. Along with the FirstNet funding, “we can put all three 2/10s or all 60 MHz of spectrum in the service at the same time,” he said. “So it’s very efficient, one pay for one tower climb and get three units of spectrum put in service at the same time.” AT&T has said it will upgrade many of its cell sites to support the new technology, an update which will also enhance its 5G capabilities in future.

Asked whether AT&T needs the full five years that are allotted for the build-out, Stephens said that depends on how quickly the rest of the opt-in process goes.

The Verizon-AT&T stand-off highlights many of the contentious issues which surround public safety network upgrades round the world. Some argue either that LTE technology is inadequate, and that even if it can meet safety requirements, it needs to be run as a private network entirely for safety users. Some markets, such as the UK, are investing in LTE for data, but having challenges to move away from specialized networks, namely TETRA, for voice.