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FirstNet: The History of our Nation's Public Safety Network

FirstNet is a nationwide wireless broadband network for first responders deployed through a first-of-its-kind public-private partnership between the federal government and AT&T. FirstNet offers public safety a communications network built to their operational and technical needs that helps them save lives and protect our communities.

The First Responder Network Authority, or FirstNet Authority, is the federal entity charged with overseeing the building, deployment, and operation of the FirstNet network. Established as an independent authority within the U.S. Department of Commerce, National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the agency’s role is to establish a network that equips public safety with broadband communications services, now and into the future, and ensure AT&T delivers on the terms of its contract.

The FirstNet Authority strives to ensure that FirstNet reflects the needs of public safety by factoring their input into network planning and investments. To best serve public safety, the FirstNet Authority maintains a robust outreach and engagement program to understand first responder needs and priorities for the network, while also working with AT&T to improve upon the public safety user experience. Through an ongoing dialogue with the public safety community, the FirstNet Authority will ensure their voices are heard in the continued evolution and improvement of the network through its Roadmap and investment processes.

2001: Public safety identifies a need

The September 11, 2001, attacks were a devastating moment in our nation’s history. The tragedy revealed fundamental problems with the communications systems used by our nation’s first responders. The radio systems that law enforcement, fire services, EMS, and emergency management relied on could not easily operate across agencies, and, during the crisis, land and mobile phone lines were overwhelmed by a high volume of calls.

2001-2012: Public safety advocates for its dedicated network

The communications challenges first responders faced on September 11 were captured in the 9/11 Commission Report. The 2004 report identified gaps in emergency communications and recommended a nationwide network for public safety communications.

In the years after the report’s release, public safety organizations and associations came together to encourage Congress to pass legislation establishing a reliable, dedicated, and nationwide high-speed network for first responders.

2012: Congress creates the First Responder Network Authority

The First Responder Network Authority, or FirstNet Authority, was created as part of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act (PUBLIC LAW 112–96), which was signed into law on Feb. 22, 2012. The law allocated 20 megahertz of spectrum and $7 billion to establish a broadband network dedicated to the nation's first responders and gave the FirstNet Authority the mandate to ensure the building, deployment, and operation of the network. Congress also required that the network extend coverage in rural areas through buildout milestones. The inaugural meeting of the FirstNet Authority Board took place on Sept. 25, 2012.

2012-Present: Consulting with public safety nationwide

The law that established the FirstNet Authority required it to consult with federal, state, tribal, and local public safety entities to ensure that FirstNet was designed to meet the needs of public safety across the country. From its founding through today, engaging with public safety is critical to the FirstNet Authority. These consultations with public safety entities informed the Request for Proposal (RFP) and shaped the State Plans that were issued to every U.S. state,  territory, and the District of Columbia. The FirstNet Authority continues to engage with public safety to help them realize the operational benefits of FirstNet.

2016-2017: Forming an innovative public-private partnership

The Act that created the FirstNet Authority required it to engage in an open, transparent, and competitive RFP process for the deployment of the network. Informed by years of public safety consultation and data collection, the FirstNet Authority issued its objectives-based RFP in January of 2016. Through a first of its kind public-private partnership, the FirstNet Authority awarded an innovative 25-year contract to AT&T in March 2017.


2016 - 2017: Customized state build-out plans and 56 state/territory opt ins

The years the FirstNet Authority spent engaging in consultation with states, territories, tribal governments, and public safety agencies at every level provided the agency with a better understanding of the needs of first responders nationwide. After forming its partnership with AT&T, the FirstNet Authority issued a customized State Plan to the governor of each U.S. state and territory, which outlined how FirstNet would be deployed.

At the conclusion of the 90-day decision period, every U.S. governor opted to accept the FirstNet plan. The success of the State Plans process has enabled FirstNet to be deployed faster as a single, interoperable nationwide network.


2018: Launching the network

2018 marked a landmark year for public safety communications. In March, the FirstNet buildout of Band 14, public safety’s spectrum, launched nationwide according to the governor-approved State Plans, and the FirstNet Core was delivered. The FirstNet Core – a physically separate and highly secure infrastructure – creates a differentiated experience for first responders. The Core is essential to providing many of the vital functions and capabilities public safety relies on to support their mission-critical work.

In October 2018, the FirstNet Deployable Network Asset Program was announced. FirstNet’s public safety users gained access to an entire fleet of dedicated deployable network assets to bolster coverage and capacity during emergencies or planned events. These FirstNet-dedicated assets, such as Satellite Cell on Light Trucks (SatCOLTs), are available 24/7 at no cost to FirstNet users.


2018-2019: Building out the network and innovating for public safety

Expanding FirstNet’s coverage and capacity. FirstNet continued to gain rapid momentum, reaching 1 million device connections by the end of 2019.  A growing number of public safety agencies nationwide began using FirstNet for every day operations, emergency situations and in response to natural disasters. As public safety’s demand for data continued to grow, so did FirstNet’s footprint with the ongoing deployment of Band 14 spectrum to further increase coverage and capacity for first responders in both urban and rural areas – on both indoor and outdoor sites.


New initiatives to drive FirstNet’s evolution and public safety innovation. The FirstNet Authority announced the release of the FirstNet Roadmap to advance and shape the future of public safety’s network, FirstNet. The Roadmap was developed with input from public safety, industry, government, and AT&T, and outlines public safety’s operational needs and technology trends for mobile broadband communications.

Additionally, the FirstNet Investment Strategy was implemented and the FirstNet Board approved two network investments to enhance FirstNet by expanding the network’s dedicated deployable network asset program and initiating upgrades to the FirstNet core to enable 5G network capabilities. Both investments reflected public safety feedback and priorities for their critical communications needs included in the Roadmap.

2020-Present: Investing in the future and listening to public safety

Network investments. As part of the FirstNet investment strategy, in August 2020 the FirstNet Authority Board approved funding in support of FirstNet network enhancements – expanding the FirstNet deployable fleet and upgrading the network core for 5G capabilities. Totaling more than $200 million, these investments were fulfilled in 2021 and set FirstNet on the path to 5G and expanded the dedicated fleet of deployable assets to ensure FirstNet subscribers have the coverage and capacity they need during emergencies and events.

Following the funding approval, the FirstNet Authority released an updated Roadmap to continue to guide the growth, evolution, and advancement of FirstNet. The FirstNet Authority continues to conduct public safety engagements to collect feedback from the broader public safety community about first responders’ operational needs.

Expansive buildout and adoption. FirstNet continues to see expansive buildout and a rising adoption across the nation. As public safety agencies increasingly integrate mobile broadband into their daily operations, FirstNet transforms the public safety marketplace by putting new mission-ready solutions into the hands of first responders, such as FirstNet MegaRange, Compact Rapid Deployables, and Z-axis features.

Today: A Catalyst for Public Safety

Through an ongoing engagement strategy, the FirstNet Authority creates meaningful partnerships with public safety agencies across the country to raise awareness about FirstNet  and help gain valuable feedback on first responder’s needs for the network. Our work with first responders and the feedback we received helps FirstNet grow in a manner that best reflects public safety’s specific communication needs, and these engagements continue to be the foundation of the FirstNet Authority’s work.

With the network expanding nationwide, the FirstNet Authority is working to ensure FirstNet meets public safety’s needs today and into the future. The FirstNet Authority will continue to engage, learn from, support, and advocate for the public safety community so that they benefit from FirstNet.

  • Learn more about how FirstNet is delivering for public safety on the FirstNet in Action page.