FirstNet – the US government agency charged with building a nationwide, interoperable wireless network for public-safety users like police and firefighters – said Wednesday it will spend $218 million in part to upgrade to a 5G core.
However, FirstNet officials cautioned that the development is only a first step toward 5G; they did not say when FirstNet might launch commercial 5G services.
FirstNet's services essentially piggyback on AT&T's network. AT&T recently said it counts more than 1.3 million FirstNet connections across more than 12,000 public-safety agencies.
AT&T recently reiterated its plans to expand its lowband 5G network nationwide later this summer. The operator also offers 5G in its highband, millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum in select downtown areas across several dozen cities.
Thus, a 5G core for FirstNet would allow the agency to tap into AT&T's commercial 5G network.
As FirstNet explained in a release, an upgrade to its existing LTE core – launched in 2018 – is no small effort. "The physically separate, highly available, redundant and highly secure network core is foundational to FirstNet," the agency wrote. "It acts as the nervous system of the network, separates all public safety traffic from non-public safety user traffic, and enables differentiated services for network users. In the future, 5G is expected to drive major increases in the quantity and types of connected devices for FirstNet users, including vehicles, unmanned aerial vehicles, and sensors."
FirstNet has previously indicated that it may use 5G to offer services such as Device to Device (D2D) communications, whereby users could communicate directly with each other when they are outside of network coverage areas. And it also hinted at enhanced Multimedia Broadcast Multicast Services (MBMS) on 5G, which would prevent network congestion by allowing users to transmit video to a group in a single broadcast, rather than streaming that video separately to each member of the group.
And in a recent blog post, FirstNet officials also hinted at the agency's desire to deploy edge computing services via a new core.
The FirstNet board explained that the agency's new $218 million for "network investments" also will cover additional "deployables" that the agency can use to temporarily improve, expand or offer coverage in emergencies. FirstNet already counts more than 70 such deployables, including Satellite Cell on Light Trucks (SatCOLTs), drones and an aerostat. The agency did not say how many additional deployables it might purchase.