Sponsored By

FirstNet pledges further investments into 5G

FirstNet's investment budget for 2024 is $547 million, cash that will 'ensure responders have full access to new and emerging 5G capabilities with unique FirstNet services and applications,' according to the government agency.

Mike Dano

February 7, 2024

4 Min Read
Policeman standing behind police line tape at a crime scene - Washington, DC USA
(Source: B Christopher / Alamy Stock Photo)

FirstNet's investment budget for 2024 is $547 million, double last year's total. The government agency said it will allocate a portion of that spending to advanced 5G services that officials say will make FirstNet's service faster and more capable.

"We are accelerating the evolution of FirstNet's 5G capabilities and making sure the network continues to deliver the innovation and reliability that first responders need, now and in the future," said Joe Wassel, FirstNet's CEO, in a release. Wassel was appointed to the position almost exactly a year ago.

The First Responders Network Authority (FirstNet) is a US government agency charged with offering a nationwide wireless network to public-safety agencies, from police to firefighters. AT&T operates the FirstNet network, including via FirstNet's Band 14 700MHz spectrum.

FirstNet isn't providing many firm details about its planned spending. The clearest look at the agency's plans comes from its roadmap, updated in 2023, which suggests FirstNet will look to expand its network coverage and upgrade its 5G core.

Evolving the core

"Over the next several years, efforts will be made to further evolve the core to ensure responders have full access to new and emerging 5G capabilities with unique FirstNet services and applications," FirstNet's roadmap states. "With 5G, FirstNet subscribers will experience lower latency, higher capacity, and faster data speeds. These capabilities are critical to operationalizing advanced technologies on the network."

FirstNet adds: "These features create an environment for new applications, such as augmented reality and IoT [Internet of things]. As the FirstNet Authority continues efforts to ensure the network is ready to support these types of applications, the team will also explore what is required to integrate broadband into these capabilities in a way that is beneficial to, and built for, public safety."

AT&T upgraded its FirstNet core to support 5G operations in 2021. Prior to that, FirstNet was only available through AT&T's LTE connections. 

Also in 2021, AT&T launched tower-to-core user plane encryption, which secures FirstNet communications from users' devices to cell towers, through AT&T's backhaul, to the FirstNet core and back again.

FirstNet's work to upgrade its core comes as AT&T, Verizon and others struggle to deploy the standalone (SA) version of 5G. 5G SA requires a major upgrade to an operator's core as well as compatible devices, but it supports a variety of advanced services including network slicing.

Extending coverage

The core isn't the only place where FirstNet may invest. The agency also suggested it might extend the reach of the FirstNet network into a wide range of remote and inaccessible locations, including indoors.

"First responders have made it clear that in-building connectivity can be a challenge, and communicating indoors is important to public safety operations. In 2022, the FirstNet Authority invested in 'Agency-Deployed RAN' to extend the benefits of Band 14 to where public safety operates indoors, such as police headquarters, fire stations, emergency communications centers, and emergency operations centers," according to FirstNet's roadmap. "Through the Agency-Deployed RAN program, agencies can install Cell Booster Pro devices to enhance coverage and fix dead spots within their buildings."

FirstNet also hinted at interest in using satellites, helicopters and drones for coverage in rural and hard-to-reach areas, including in the ocean.

Indeed, the expansion of FirstNet's network could represent a boon to 5G equipment makers and cell tower owners. The financial analysts at Wells Fargo recently noted that AT&T may increase the reach of FirstNet's network with more tower locations starting in 2025.

Reinforcing the network

AT&T began offering services to first responders under a partnership with the government's FirstNet effort in 2018. The company recently announced it finished its buildout of FirstNet's Band 14 700MHz network. That effort put 700MHz FirstNet radios atop tens of thousands of AT&T cell towers across the country, as well as more than 1,000 purpose-built FirstNet cell towers in locations earmarked by state and public-safety officials.

AT&T is also working to reinforce the FirstNet network. For example, it told the FCC recently that "FirstNet is also undergoing the largest refresh of power backup systems in the history of the network. AT&T is investing millions of dollars in generators, batteries and systems to help keep the network up and running when there is a local power outage."

In its most recent quarterly report, AT&T said it gained 260,000 new FirstNet connections. FirstNet now covers a total of 5.5 million connections, serving 27,500 public-safety agencies.

As noted by Urgent Communications, AT&T agreed to pay the FirstNet Authority $18 billion for its access to Band 14 spectrum throughout FirstNet's initial 25-year contract period. About $3 billion of that money is expected to fund FirstNet Authority's ongoing operations, so the FirstNet Authority board ultimately is expected to have about $15 billion in funds to invest into its network by 2042.

To date, the FirstNet Authority has spent less than 5% of those discretionary investment funds.

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.

Subscribe and receive the latest news from the industry.
Join 62,000+ members. Yes it's completely free.

You May Also Like