AT&T and Verizon are locked in a heated battle over which carrier should sell wireless services to public safety users like police, firefighters and other first responders. And that battle is now spilling into a new front: 5G.
"As we build out 5G, it will be made available to public safety, just at the same time it will be made available to any other customer in terms of the network capability," said Tami Erwin, chief of Verizon's new Business unit and the executive in charge of selling Verizon services to public safety.
However, Erwin cautioned that Verizon would have to tailor its 5G pricing plans specifically for public safety users, and that might not happen immediately. "But the intent is to have that same capability available at the same time as the general public," she said.
So will AT&T make its own 5G service immediately available to its public safety customers? Well, not exactly, according to an AT&T spokesperson, who declined to provide a specific timeline or launch date for AT&T 5G for public safety.
That's because "it's essential to ensure the standards, testing and critical capabilities are properly in place before advocating for the widespread use of this technology within public safety. Impressing the use of 5G upon public safety before this is complete and deemed ready for the public safety environment would show a lack of understanding for the public safety mission," said AT&T's spokesperson.
Specifically, technologies including Quality of Service, Priority and Preemption (QPP), Multimedia Priority Service (MPS), interoperability with Land Mobile Radio (LMR), mission-critical push-to-talk (MCPTT), mission-critical data (MCData) and mission-critical video (MCVideo) have not yet been written into the 3GPP's 5G standard.
AT&T and FirstNet (the federal authority working with AT&T to build a nationwide wireless network for public safety) are certainly working on getting those standards in place -- FirstNet even has a senior director of standards who is attending 3GPP meetings. But, as AT&T's spokesperson said, "more information will be provided about 5G and FirstNet as this effort evolves."
What AT&T is doing instead is paving a 5G road for its public safety customers to follow -- for example, the company late last year introduced routers from Cradlepoint that give public safety users "a path to easily upgrade to 5G in the future."
The public safety-5G discussion may be premature, to say the least. Verizon has launched a fixed wireless Internet service, dubbed 5G Home, in parts of four cities, and has promised to launch mobile 5G services in parts of 30 cities by this summer. AT&T, meantime, has launched mobile 5G services (in millimeter-wave spectrum) in parts of a dozen cities to "select" customers, and has promised to expand its mobile 5G service nationwide (using spectrum below 6GHz) by early next year. So neither company has laid out its mobile 5G pricing plans and go-to-market strategy for regular consumers, much less for public safety customers.
"When it comes to public safety applications, the so-called 5G race is much ado about nothing," said Ken Rehbehn, principal analyst at public safety research firm CritComm Insights. "Key features such as broadcast available in LTE have not yet been mapped to 5G yet. The first release of 5G tackles basic data transmission with network control over existing LTE core networks. Public safety needs the coming 5G network slicing capabilities to gain 5G QoS, priority and preemption available in LTE. The reality is that LTE continues to get better with more flexible carrier aggregation and improved latency. So the pressure to move to 5G quickly should be slight."
Adding 5G to the public safety equation
That said, the 5G sales pitch -- instant communications, support for high-bandwidth video and so on -- certainly tilts toward public-safety users. And that opportunity is not lost on either operator.
Verizon, for example, used a public safety use case to test its forthcoming mobile edge computing platform. The operator earlier this year used an AI algorithm to scan people's faces in a 5G video feed at an edge computing location, with the intention of showing how police officers could use such a technology to quickly identify a suspect in a crowd. More recently, Verizon touted its new 5G First Responder Lab in Washington, D.C., which the operator said is working with startups in areas ranging from video-scanning with drones to augmented reality products to help firefighters see in smoke-filled environments.
The message from Verizon is clear: We're going to use 5G for a variety of services, including ones that would be ideal for public safety users.
It's no surprise that Verizon is hoping to use 5G as leverage in its battle with AT&T over public safety. Verizon has long been recognized as the leader in the sale of wireless services to police officers, firefighters and others. But 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. The move essentially gives AT&T a strong play to potentially steal some of the public safety market from Verizon -- a market that could total as many as 20 million users.
And AT&T isn't wasting any time, as MissionCritical Communications noted. At the end of 2018, AT&T already counted close to half a million users on the FirstNet platform and had finished around 40% of FirstNet's LTE network. As a result, AT&T received $1.4 billion in reimbursements from FirstNet in 2018.
But here's where 5G again sneaks into AT&T's public safety story: AT&T is leveraging its FirstNet network buildout efforts to also construct a nationwide 5G network. Basically, every time an AT&T technician climbs a cell tower to update the company's radios, they're installing 5G equipment for AT&T and LTE equipment for FirstNet. The operator has made no secret of these concurrent efforts, pointing out instead how it's an efficient and effective use of the company's resources. (It's also worth noting that AT&T is currently in the process of snapping up its own 700MHz spectrum -- spectrum that's separate from FirstNet's spectrum -- likely to augment its 5G network.)
The interoperability question
As Verizon works to protect its public safety user base against incursions from AT&T's FirstNet push, 5G isn't the only weapon it's wielding. The operator is also calling on AT&T and FirstNet to enable interoperability for public safety users between the two operators' networks.
"Without interoperability, they're not solving anyone's problems. Interoperability is a thing that every first responder needs to be worried about," cautioned Verizon's Erwin. She added that "it's certainly something that we continue to talk to FirstNet about; that we continue to talk to AT&T about."
Verizon isn't asking for basic interoperability: A public safety user with a Verizon phone can still make calls and send texts to an AT&T/FirstNet public safety user, just like every other mobile customer can. What Verizon is really asking for is interoperability in the services that are specific to AT&T's FirstNet customers -- services like priority and preemption.
As explained by a Verizon consultant at the recent IWCE trade show and reported by Urgent Comms, both Verizon and AT&T's FirstNet offer public safety users priority and preemption -- meaning, public safety users get first dibs on the network over regular people in emergencies or in a congested network. But if a prioritized message travels from AT&T/FirstNet to Verizon, it loses its prioritized status because there isn't interoperability between the two networks.
In response to questions on the topic, a FirstNet spokesperson pointed to recent arguments against allowing interoperability between Verizon and FirstNet. A former FirstNet executive pointed out that Verizon had the chance to win the FirstNet contract but didn't, and that Verizon could evade federal oversight on the issue because it's not part of the FirstNet/AT&T public-private partnership.
As both Verizon and AT&T build out their respective 5G networks this year, interoperable or not, it's likely that they'll both work to entice public safety users with a variety of high-speed services.