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On Thursday August 30th, the Department of Commerce granted AT&T $6.5 billion to create FirstNet, a national broadband service for first responders such as firefighters, police, and EMS. AT&T won the contract auction with an $18.2 billion bid. AT&T plans to invest $40 billion and maintain the system over 25 years, and will receive 20 megahertz of telecommunications spectrum for the network, which can be used for commercial use during non-emergency situations.

(Wikimedia) Cellular communications tower

The FirstNet system was recommended following the September 11th terrorist attacks. First responders using different equipment, networks, and systems were not able to effectively communicate, exacerbating an already chaotic response environment. Over 10,000 networks are used by first responders nation-wide, which often do not interoperate, making cross agency communication a significant hurdle in dynamic situations. Consequently, in 2004, Congress’s 9/11 Commission proposed the idea of creating a unified single network for first responders in order to alleviate these communication issues. FirstNet carries the additional benefits of expanding both commercial and emergency response communication capabilities to rural areas. Often these sparsely populated areas receive limited, if any, communications ability because it is not cost effective for telecommunications companies to invest infrastructure for a small population.

Additionally, FirstNet will allow responders to circumvent communication systems that overload during emergencies. During the Boston Marathon Bombing in 2013, cellular towers were overwhelmed by the volume of calls and texts being sent in the immediate aftermath. By reserving bandwidth solely for first responders, FirstNet will help avoid similar communications hurdles.

The program was officially created by the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, which earmarked $7 billion for a broadband network, through a spectrum auction in January 2015. The system is slated to cover “all 50 states, five US territories, and the District of Columbia, including coverage for rural and tribal lands.” AT&T plans to provide basic voice and internet service, as well as applications for traffic conditions, options for wearable sensors and cameras, and technology for camera equipped drones. Wilbur Ross, Secretary of Commerce, also expects this public-private partnership to generate over 10,000 jobs.

Critics of the FirstNet program argue that the program will take years to complete and is another example of a costly, wasteful, and inefficient program that’s over a decade late to solve a problem that has already been fixed by current technology. Further, some criticize the fact that the FirstNet system will have to be sold to individual agencies and jurisdictions. These subscriptions will help pay for the maintenance of the system.

Further Reading and Sources:

  1. S. awards AT&T contract to build wireless network for first responders – Reuters
  2. AT&T wins $6.5B contract to build first responder network – The Hill
  3. AT&T gets $6.5 billion to build US-wide public safety network – Ars Technica
  4. FirstNet Partners with AT&T to Build $46.5 Billion Wireless Broadband Network for America’s First Responders – Department of Commerce
  5. The $47 Billion Network That’s Already Obsolete – The Atlantic
  6. FirstNet Board Advances First Responder Network Procurement Process – FirstNet
  7. It’s official: AT&T wins $6.5 billion FirstNet award – FCW