AT&T today counts more than 1.3 million FirstNet connections across more than 12,000 public-safety agencies – an impressive feat given that AT&T first launched FirstNet services just two years ago.
However, the officials at FirstNet are finally pulling back the veil on 5G by detailing some of their initial planning efforts around the technology. The agency confirmed that one of its main technological goals for this year would be to pursue investments in "initial generational upgrades to the FirstNet Core to enable 5G network capabilities."
"This investment opportunity will also set us on a path to enable 5G capabilities when they are ready for public safety's use," the agency said in its 2019 annual report to Congress. However, FirstNet did not specify when a 5G launch might happen.
Nonetheless, in its report, FirstNet offered some clear hints about what it might want to do with 5G.
"The FirstNet Authority worked together with suppliers and global public safety partners during 3GPP Release 17 priority discussions to voice support for features essential to public safety, including Device to Device (D2D) and enhanced Multimedia Broadcast Multicast Services (MBMS) for 5G," the agency wrote in its report. "As a result of our efforts, both features are now formally included as work items in Release 17 and are critical to public safety."
FirstNet explained that D2D would allow users to communicate directly with each other when they are outside of network coverage areas (sort of like walkie talkie users), while MBMS can 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.
Dean Prochaska has been representing FirstNet for years at the 3GPP, the global industry association tasked with fleshing out the world's 5G standard. The 3GPP in December voted to move forward on a variety of technologies that will ultimately be packaged into its "Release 17" batch of specifications for the 5G standard. However, the 3GPP recently announced it would delay the discharge of Release 17 to December 2021 due to COVID-19.
A FirstNet official declined to offer any more details on how and when the agency might launch 5G. That's noteworthy considering Verizon – a longtime heavyweight in the market for public-safety communications and a heated rival to AT&T's FirstNet – has said it will offer 5G to its own public-safety customers.
A focus on PTT and LMR
To be clear, the absence of 5G from FirstNet probably isn't causing much consternation among public-safety workers like police, firefighters and others. After all, many still rely on decades-old land mobile radio (LMR) systems that are essentially high-quality walkie talkies.
Along those lines, AT&T earlier this year announced its FirstNet Push-to-Talk (FirstNet PTT) offering, which is based on the 3GPP's mission-critical-push-to-talk (MCPTT) standard. The agency said its next step will be to support interoperability between MCPTT services and legacy LMR-based systems.
AT&T in 2017 won a contract with FirstNet to build a nationwide LTE network specifically for public-safety users, using FirstNet's 20MHz of nationwide 700MHz spectrum. So far AT&T has built out roughly 80% of FirstNet's 700MHz Band 14 spectrum, putting it ahead of schedule.