AUDREY’s image and voice recognition capabilities are promising to paramedics during emergency situations. Photo credit: DHS S&T/DRDC CSS

FirstNet marks anniversary with new offers, capabilities

On the second anniversary of the launch of FirstNet, the First Responder Network Authority announced a number of milestones, new services and a new device for first responders.

Band 14 spectrum has been deployed on existing cell sites in more than 675 markets nationwide and added over 170,000 square miles to its LTE network coverage in 2018 and 2019. As of February 2020, 11,000 public safety agencies and organizations have subscribed and 1.2 million devices have been connected to the network, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the United States Coast Guard and the Navy. 

The separate, purpose-built network core offers end-to-end encryption, priority and preemption capabilities, local control of users and applications and more than 75 deployables like land-based satellite cell on light trucks and flying cells on wheels.

In its March 31 announcement, AT&T, which was awarded the contract to build, operate and maintain the network three years ago, detailed new offers to FirstNet subscribers for free smartphones to connect to the network. Public safety agencies on FirstNet can get free premium FirstNet-Ready smartphones for their agency’s paid users. Starting April 1, individual responders who sign-on to FirstNet and pay for their own service can get a $200 activation credit when they buy a FirstNet-Ready smartphone on a new FirstNet First Mobile-Responder plan.

Like discounted smartphone offers to consumers, this special rate and activation credits require agencies to get a two-year service agreement or a new 30-month agreement.

The company also announced it was providing easy access to the interactive COVID-19 dashboard at Johns Hopkins University so public safety agencies can see confirmed cases in their jurisdiction for better situational awareness. 

The network’s push-to-talk capability was also just launched in a controlled introduction. It will allow responders use their smartphones, feature phones and rugged devices like a two-way radio and include new features that allow first responders to better react to changing events. The first device to launch is the Samsung Galaxy XCover FieldPro, a purpose-built, secure phone equipped with PTT capability.

Although FirstNet has seen 10-fold growth in subscribers over the last two years with device connections beating monthly targets, a public-safety communications advocacy group called on AT&T to be more transparent about its progress on state-specific build-outs.

First Responder Voice, which is led by Communications Workers of America, acknowledged that the parts of the network are still in the “design and construction phase,” but it noted that “both the First Responder Network Authority and AT&T are required to consult with each state via the FirstNet single point of contact (SPOC) regarding the state-specific commitments that were made as a result of the state opt-in process i.e. radio-access build out, placement of cell towers, and migrations to illustrate the growing momentum of the platform.”

To date, the report said, that information has not been made available, although one of the two mandated semi-annual reports was accepted by the First Responder Network Authority, but not shared with the states. It pointed to a January review of the network’s progress by the Government Accountability Office that noted that “FirstNet has shared little to no information about its contract oversight with state officials and other stakeholders.”

First Responder Voice warned that if responder agencies are forced to rely on information from 2017 for their decision-making, FirstNet may lose potential subscribers. Releasing the reports on schedule “will address stakeholders’ dissatisfaction with the current level of transparency and will also serve to improve first responders’ knowledge of the viability of the network in their area,” the group said.

About the Author

Susan Miller is executive editor at GCN.

Over a career spent in tech media, Miller has worked in editorial, print production and online, starting on the copy desk at IDG’s ComputerWorld, moving to print production for Federal Computer Week and later helping launch websites and email newsletter delivery for FCW. After a turn at Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology, where she worked to promote technology-based economic development, she rejoined what was to become 1105 Media in 2004, eventually managing content and production for all the company's government-focused websites. Miller shifted back to editorial in 2012, when she began working with GCN.

Miller has a BA and MA from West Chester University and did Ph.D. work in English at the University of Delaware.

Connect with Susan at [email protected] or @sjaymiller.

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