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AT&T claims the lead in public safety, but Verizon balks

AT&T said it is now the leader in the market for public safety wireless services, based on two new surveys. However: 'Our statistics don't corroborate what AT&T is saying,' said Verizon's Maggie Hallbach.

Mike Dano

April 17, 2023

7 Min Read
AT&T claims the lead in public safety, but Verizon balks

Citing new studies from two different market research and consulting companies, AT&T said it is now the clear leader in the market for public safety wireless services.

But Verizon – the longtime leader in the space – isn't buying it.

"Our statistics don't corroborate what AT&T is saying," Maggie Hallbach, the president of Verizon's Frontline business, told Light Reading.

Hallbach said Verizon has been tracking public safety market share data "for many years" and is confident about its conclusions. However, she said Verizon does not share its data externally.

AT&T, on the other hand, does.

The company supplied Light Reading with information from Altman Solon and Ipsos – two market research and consulting companies – showing that AT&T recently surpassed Verizon in market share among first responders, such as police and firefighters. According to Altman Solon's findings, AT&T moved past Verizon in the third quarter of last year. According to Ipsos, that happened in the fourth quarter of last year. Like Verizon, AT&T paid for the research to be conducted.

If AT&T's findings are correct, it would represent a major move in a market that totaled 9.8 million connections at the end of 2022, according to research firm IDC. AT&T began offering services to first responders under a partnership with the government's FirstNet effort roughly six years ago. The company recently announced it finished its buildout of FirstNet's Band 14 700MHz network. Verizon, meanwhile, has long enjoyed a commanding leadership position in the market for first responders. In 2021, the company put those offerings under its Frontline brand.

Careful counting

AT&T's FirstNet effort is "a story of continuous, consistent growth," explained Oscar Yuan, president and partner at Ipsos Strategy3.

Yuan said Ipsos surveyed "thousands" of first responders to obtain its data, though he did not provide an exact number. He said the company conducted quantitative surveys, calibrated that data with market "knowns," and refined its figures with third-party syndicated data and interviews with select first responders. He said the company focused on "primary" first responders, like police, firefighters and emergency medical workers.

Figure 1: (Source: B Christopher/Alamy Stock Photo) (Source: B Christopher/Alamy Stock Photo)

Yuan added that Ipsos' findings covered agency-owned mobility connections, including smartphones, in-vehicle modems and mobile hotspots, but did not count Internet of things (IoT) products nor machine-to-machine (M2M) devices.

Altman Solon's findings are relatively similar. According to AT&T, the company based its results on "a quantitative survey of thousands of respondents and calibrated with market knowns." Altman Solon surveyed first responders "who are directly responsible for emergency response," such as police and firefighters. Those customers used smartphones, in-vehicle modems and mobile hotspots. Like Ipsos, Altman Solon did not count IoT solutions or M2M devices.

Neither Ipsos nor Altman Solon provided Light Reading with specific market share figures for AT&T, Verizon or other providers.

Hallbach, of Verizon, said her figures show that Verizon continues to lead among "primary" first responders, such as police and firefighters. Verizon reported around 5.1 million public safety connections across over 30,000 public safety agencies. Verizon officials also argued that the company's figures are more credible because the company has been collecting public safety market share data for a long time and isn't using that data in a marketing context. However, on its website, Verizon boasts that it's "the #1 choice for first responders."

In its count, Verizon includes corporate-liable devices, mobile broadband devices, phones and machine-to-machine gadgets. But Hallbach said Verizon has a "pretty measurable lead" if it just counts phones.

Hallbach did not provide any more data or details underpinning Verizon's assertions.

Defining a market

The market share debate surrounding AT&T's FirstNet and Verizon's Frontline centers on who can be called a first responder. According to longtime public safety analyst Ken Rehbehn, of CritComm Insights, there are "primary" and "secondary" (or "extended") first responder customers. Primary customers would be those called to emergencies, like police and firefighters. "Secondary" customers might be those who primary customers work with, like water and electricity technicians, nurses and tow truck drivers.

FirstNet is available to both primary and secondary customers. That likely explains the growth in AT&T's FirstNet connections over the past few years – today the company counts almost 4.4 million FirstNet connections across 25,000 agencies. But AT&T officials argued that the company is mainly focused on "primary" users, and that the findings from Altman Solon and Ipsos are centered on primary public safety users.

Meanwhile, Verizon's Hallbach also suggested that Frontline mainly targets "primary" first responder customers. She said putting secondary customers alongside primary customers can rub first responders "not the right way." But AT&T officials argued that both primary and secondary customers might be important players in an emergency and that FirstNet's primary customers wanted to add secondary customers to the service.

"AT&T claims that they're doing well," Rehbehn told Light Reading. "It's not clear what reality is."

Rehbehn said the public safety market is "murky" because some customers use private devices for some applications and agency-supplied devices for others. (AT&T officials argued that it's important to make FirstNet available to both individuals and agencies rather than just one or the other.) Rehbehn also said one public safety agency might subscribe to multiple network operators in order to have backup connections where necessary.

Further, Rehbehn said that most public safety agencies are loath to swap out existing devices – such as those installed in police cars – for new ones. That makes changing providers "a challenge," he said. As a result, market share changes might be due to purchasing new devices – such as adding tablets to an agency's existing lineup of devices – rather than switching providers.

"Verizon still may be ahead if you narrow the criteria," Rehbehn suggested.

Similarly, Recon Analytics analyst Roger Entner said his recent count of the market turned up 67,000 first responder agencies across the US. He said Verizon had contracts with around 26,000 of those, while AT&T had around 22,000.

Looking forward

Entner, of Recon Analytics, said AT&T continues to gain public safety share thanks to the "official seal of approval" that the FirstNet Authority gives to the company. The FirstNet Authority is an independent government agency charged with offering a nationwide, interoperable wireless network for public safety. It traces its origins to the "inadequate communications" recorded among early responders to the terrorist attacks in New York City on September 11, 2001.

But Entner said Verizon is also growing because the overall public safety market is expanding with more users and devices.

Nonetheless, AT&T officials are cheering the company's progress. "We've established our leadership position within the public safety community following 20+ consecutive quarters of consistent, steady growth," the company wrote in a recent release.

"It's truly a network built for and by public safety," Scott Agnew, AT&T's chief operating officer for its FirstNet business, told Light Reading.

"We know exactly who our public safety customers are," added Jim Bugel, the president of AT&T's FirstNet operation.

As noted by Urgent Communications, AT&T was required to finish building a nationwide network with FirstNet's 20MHz of 700MHz Band 14 spectrum by March 30. According to the publication, the company said it completed the work on time, although the FirstNet agency still must validate the work.

As a result, AT&T is in line to receive the $6.5 billion set aside for the construction of FirstNet's nationwide network.

However, "we're not done," said AT&T's Agnew. He said the company would continue to develop new products and services for its first responder customers.

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

About the Author(s)

Mike Dano

Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading

Mike Dano is Light Reading's Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies. Mike can be reached at [email protected], @mikeddano or on LinkedIn.

Based in Denver, Mike has covered the wireless industry as a journalist for almost two decades, first at RCR Wireless News and then at FierceWireless and recalls once writing a story about the transition from black and white to color screens on cell phones.

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