T-Mobile offers free service to first responders, but rivals shouldn't fret just yet

T-Mobile on Thursday followed through on a promise it made in November to offer free wireless service to the nation's first responders.

With the initiative dubbed "Connecting Heroes" and complete with a hashtag (#5GforGood for those following along), T-Mobile said it is now offering free text, talk and data services to first-responder agencies – specifically to all US public and nonprofit state and local fire, police and EMS departments. The operator said the program includes a ten-year commitment and is worth $7.7 billion.

Analyst Ken Rehbehn with research and consulting firm Omdia specializes in critical communications for the public-safety industry. He said T-Mobile – via its newly closed merger with Sprint – will soon have plenty of network capacity to offer to first responders and others. However, he said the operator's new program isn't necessarily a direct threat to AT&T's FirstNet or Verizon's public-safety offerings.

For starters, he said that T-Mobile needs to be much more explicit about its network management policies as it relates to emergency traffic at times of network stress. For example, on the operator's Connecting Heroes website it promises that "first responders remain among the highest priority on our network, no matter how much data they need during emergencies or natural disasters." But in its terms of service T-Mobile notes that connections "may be impacted by emergencies" and "may be slowed, suspended, terminated, or restricted for interference with our network or ability to provide quality service to other users or abusive/excessive use."

Further, the operator specifies that its new offer only supports direct communications between two people and not conference calls or chat lines. And the operator said "Connecting Heroes" includes 1 GB of high-speed smartphone mobile hotspot with unlimited 3G speeds thereafter. The operator said first responders can purchase more high-speed data as they need.

Thus, Rehbehn explained that T-Mobile's new offer of free service isn't necessarily directly comparable to the kinds of full-blown critical communications systems sold by Verizon and AT&T's FirstNet. Those offerings can include everything from dedicated priority access, complete with specific performance measurements, to other bells and whistles like push-to-talk services, portable coverage solutions and other elements.

Interestingly, Rehbehn added that the sales lines to first responders are becoming blurry, with some offers targeted at the individual level (like AT&T's recent offer of three months of free service to nurses and doctors) and others targeted at the agency level.

That said, Rehbehn explained that T-Mobile is a new entrant to the public-safety sector, and likely will expand its offerings over time.

Summed analyst William Ho of research and consulting firm 556 Ventures on Twitter: T-Mobile's new offer is a "foot in the door," which could lead to additional business between the operator and public-safety agencies like police departments and fire stations.

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

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