FirstNet, AT&T face fire from federal inspector general

The Commerce Department's Office of the Inspector General issued three reports critical of AT&T and FirstNet, a move that gives ammunition to Verizon, T-Mobile and others opposed to FirstNet getting access to 4.9GHz.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies

July 5, 2024

4 Min Read
picture of a Police officer and police line do not cross

A series of new reports from the US Department of Commerce Office of the Inspector General (OIG) raises questions about FirstNet's network for public safety users, which is managed by AT&T.

FirstNet and AT&T have rejected many of the criticisms leveled in the reports, arguing that FirstNet users are receiving extensive and reliable wireless services.

"Audits and reviews like these are a routine part of government oversight designed to provide independent perspective on federal entities' operations," AT&T wrote in a statement to Light Reading. "No other wireless network is subject to this robust level of scrutiny and accountability, and no other wireless network has delivered more for public safety."

AT&T added: "As public safety's network provider, we understand and welcome this oversight, and we look forward to continuing work with the FirstNet Authority and the public safety community as we grow and evolve the network to strengthen first responders' communications."

The reports, released in the past few weeks, come at an inopportune time for FirstNet and AT&T. Both are urging the FCC to allow FirstNet to manage 50MHz of spectrum in the 4.9GHz band for public safety use.

Verizon, T-Mobile and others fiercely oppose that idea, and they are pointing to the Inspector General's reports to support their position.

"The US Department of Commerce Office of Inspector General has issued three reports in the last month identifying new significant compliance issues and oversight concerns," Verizon wrote to the FCC recently. "The commission should focus on monitoring FirstNet compliance and oversight, not on handing it more spectrum."

OIG's concerns

The Commerce Department's OIG is essentially the agency's ombudsman. Specifically, it is authorized to conduct investigations and audits to "promote economy, efficiency, and effectiveness in the administration of [the Department's] programs and operations; and … to prevent and detect fraud and abuse," according to the agency.

Across three separate reports, the OIG argued that FirstNet didn't properly track AT&T's coverage and didn't provide adequate coverage for first responders using FirstNet's Band 14 spectrum. As a result, FirstNet modified its coverage requirements so that AT&T's network could meet FirstNet's coverage targets, according to the reports.

FirstNet is a federal entity charged with building a nationwide wireless network for public safety agencies (police, firefighters and others), using around $6.5 billion and 20MHz of unused 700MHz Band 14 spectrum. AT&T won the FirstNet contract in 2017 and pledged to construct a network using the spectrum within five years.

AT&T finished that first round of work last year by installing FirstNet 700MHz transmitters on its existing cell tower sites. Today, FirstNet counts roughly 5.5 million connections across around 27,500 public safety agencies.

The wider debate

For its part, FirstNet is moving forward with AT&T as its network partner.

For example, AT&T recently announced that it has already built 160 new cell sites for FirstNet this year, as part of its goal to build 1,000 new sites within the next two years. AT&T also said FirstNet users in Virginia recently made the first interoperable call between traditional LMR (land mobile radio) public safety walkie talkies and FirstNet Push-To-Talk (FNPTT) gadgets using the FirstNet Interworking Function (IWF).

Meanwhile, AT&T recently sought to push back against its opponents in the FCC's ongoing 4.9GHz proceeding. The company argued that it wouldn't get the spectrum but rather FirstNet could use the spectrum for public safety through its contract with AT&T.

The FCC allocated 50MHz of nationwide spectrum in the 4.9GHz band to public safety in 2023. However, last year the FCC established a more coordinated, nationwide approach to managing the band. The Commission is also considering the prospect of a band manager to administer operations in the spectrum band.

Verizon, T-Mobile and others don't want FirstNet or AT&T to be able to access the spectrum in the 4.9GHz band. They argue it would amount to a $14 billion windfall for AT&T.

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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