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Security

Verizon escalates interoperability battle with AT&T, FirstNet, others

Verizon's Andres Irlando is officially putting AT&T, FirstNet and others in the public safety industry on notice: The interoperability fight is not over. Not by a long shot.

"We don't have true interoperability," said Irlando, who is in charge of Verizon's "public sector" business, which includes sales of services to federal, state, public safety and education customers. "It's time for the industry to come together and solve for true interoperability."

Specifically, Irlando is calling for interoperability among Verizon, AT&T, FirstNet and others across a number of services that are specific to public-safety customers. Those services include priority and preemption (which ensures public safety users can access a connection amid network congestion); mutual-aid roaming (where public-safety customers would automatically switch to another nearby network if their primary connection is disabled); application interoperability (wherein features and functions specific to public-safety users work across all networks); and push-to-X interoperability (which includes everything from push to talk services to mission-critical video). Such interoperability would build on the interconnected design of telecom networks in general: After all, phone calls and text messages are already interoperable because they can be sent and received regardless of a customer's network provider.

Irlando made clear that Verizon isn't specifically targeting AT&T and FirstNet with the effort. However, much of the discussion has centered on AT&T and FirstNet given the traction the two have gained in the space.

War of words

In order to attain this "true" interoperability in the public sector, Irlando said he's preparing to assemble a broad coalition of companies, customers, organizations and others around the issue. Irlando declined to provide any details about the effort, including any possible members of the coalition beyond vendor Mutualink, except to say he expects to launch the program sometime in the spring.

"The time has come," he said.

Irlando's media campaign on the issue – he also made the same comments to Urgent Communications, which is owned by the same company as Light Reading – builds on an article he wrote in October calling for "true" communications interoperability for first responders and other public-safety workers. "Verizon and other industry leaders must work together to make it a reality," Irlando wrote. "We believe an industry-wide coalition is the best way to advance true interoperability, by making it a core design principle for networks, the latest devices and software solutions and applications for public safety."

So what does AT&T have to say to all this? "Recently, there was confusion about enabling interoperability," the operator wrote in response to questions from Light Reading. "But what others failed to share is that all traffic to a FirstNet device receives priority regardless of where it comes from (another FirstNet device, another provider, etc.). If commercial network providers don't recognize and treat outside traffic coming into their public safety subscriber devices with that same level of priority, then that's on them."

A market of millions

Caught in the middle of this telecom tussle are millions of firefighters, police officers and other first responders and public-safety workers who often rely on wireless connections in emergencies. Verizon has long dominated this market, but AT&T is working to break the carrier's grip with its FirstNet contract. FirstNet is a US government agency that traces its origins to the communications problems experienced by the first responders to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City.

FirstNet has been charged with building a nationwide wireless network using its 700MHz spectrum for public-safety workers. AT&T bid for and won the FirstNet contract in 2017; the company said last month it covers 80% of the territory it is required to serve under the contract.

AT&T executives have touted the program as a resounding success, noting that the operator has signed up almost 2 million FirstNet customers.

However, AT&T's FirstNet successes appear to have generated some concerns among its competitors.

"AT&T is merely attempting to leverage its FirstNet relationship to alarm potential customers into becoming AT&T subscribers," T-Mobile wrote to the FCC last year. "In fact, AT&T and FirstNet have exaggerated the purported interoperability limitations of other carriers in order to drive subscribers to AT&T's network. AT&T and FirstNet's scare tactics particularly disadvantage potential customers of providers like T-Mobile, which plans to provide innovative public safety offerings."

Others agree.

"The level of priority and preemption between users on FirstNet/AT&T and other networks must be standardized to avoid a situation in which a high priority public safety user on one network is treated as a commercial user on another network," wrote officials from New Mexico's Department of Information Technology in comments to the FCC. "This is particularly important in situations where users from different jurisdictions are responding to a common emergency, such as a wildfire within a remote region of the state."

The comments stem from an ongoing debate at the FCC over whether AT&T and FirstNet should be required to make their services, such as PTT and preemption, interoperable with those of other providers. So far the agency hasn't addressed the issue directly.

Fighting back

"There is a lot of confusion and misinformation out there about interoperability. The claim that FirstNet is not interoperable is patently false," AT&T wrote in response to questions from Light Reading. "FirstNet is an open standards and open architecture platform. By law, it's required to be built upon international wireless standards, including 3GPP industry standards, which enable the full scope of interoperability with commercial networks prescribed by applicable law. That means FirstNet subscribers today are able to talk, text and exchange data with customers on commercial wireless networks, and vice versa. While on FirstNet, communications between FirstNet subscribers and non-FirstNet subscribers also have the same priority and preemption capability as equivalent communications among FirstNet subscribers."

The comments mostly align with those from FirstNet's chief executive, Edward Parkinson, who addressed the issue in a post to the agency's website just days after Verizon's Irlando called for "true" interoperability.

"Because we based FirstNet on open international wireless standards as required by Congress, and created objectives requiring AT&T through our contractual agreement to meet those standards, the network is interoperable with other standards-based mobility networks," he wrote, arguing that FirstNet continues to work to develop standards around services, including PTT, device-to-device communications and Multimedia Broadcast Multicast Services (MBMS).

"FirstNet is the fully operable communications network that public safety asked for," Parkinson concluded.

For his part, Verizon's Irlando isn't buying it. "It's what our customers demand," he said. "This is an issue we've got to solve."

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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