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FirstNet’s public safety-first approach to 5G and evolving their network

December 29, 2021

This blog is a repost from Urgent Communications, originally published on December 23, 2021.

You would be hard-pressed to read the news today and not find a headline about 5G. It has been an exciting year for the telecommunications industry as a whole, with initial 5G services becoming more available on smartphones and tablets — including some of the devices our first responders use during emergencies and everyday operations.

Unlike previous technology upgrades, when public-safety users were mostly an afterthought, they are now a critical market to consider in technology rollouts. At the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet Authority), we are pleased to see a robust marketplace for public safety expand and reach new heights in just our fifth year of the public-private partnership with our network contractor AT&T.

On March 30, 2017, we launched this first-of-its-kind partnership and, importantly, took a major step in realizing public safety’s vision for their own specialized communications network. Part of that vision is that the network should evolve as commercial standards evolve, and that we should continue to prioritize public safety’s unique operational needs.

Investing in 5G for public safety

In 2021, we delivered our first investments in public safety’s network to help drive a differentiated, dedicated, and enduring network to support first responders. We set the strategy for the future of the network through the FirstNet Authority Roadmap, and then we implemented it through our engagement and investment efforts, which rely on public-safety consultation and feedback.

The FirstNet Authority Board directed our first investments for the network, which included initial upgrades to the FirstNet Core to enable access to 5G services for FirstNet subscribers. In April 2021, this initial investment became a reality. FirstNet subscribers now have access to AT&T’s mmWave (5G+) spectrum in parts of 42 cities and nearly 30 venues, and access to AT&T’s 5G Sub-6 spectrum in 10 cities across the country. 

This is the start of a multi-phase, multi-year journey to deliver full 5G capabilities on FirstNet for public safety. More markets and availability of 5G for FirstNet will be added as AT&T continues to deploy more 5G spectrum across the country. Access to 5G is a major development for FirstNet, yet we are only scratching the surface of future innovations for first responders. While there is more work to be done to advance mission-critical 5G capabilities for first responders, the FirstNet Authority is proud to deliver additional capabilities to first responders with initial access to this new technology.

Building mission-critical solutions for responders

5G is just one of several examples of the FirstNet Authority’s public-safety-first approach to advancing the FirstNet network. This past year also saw the launch of high-powered user equipment (HPUE), called FirstNet MegaRange, which boosts signal strength up to six times the normal cellular power to increase range and coverage for public safety.

In 2021, FirstNet also delivered innovations in critical communications for emergency response with the release of Compact Rapid Deployables (CRDs) or small portable units that provide FirstNet cellular and Wi-Fi coverage via satellite. CRDs can be customer-owned and deployed by a single person within a matter of minutes. And in June 2021, we joined AT&T to announce our second investment back into the network with the expansion of the FirstNet fleet of dedicated deployable assets.

Finally, public-safety users on FirstNet saw the first phase of Z-axis technology—a vertical-location component that complements traditional XY coordinates—become a reality last year. Z-axis capabilities have been called the “Holy Grail” by some in the fire services community. Z-axis for FirstNet uses the barometric sensor built into most smartphones to measure height above terrain and provide the vertical location of a first responder. It is available in 105 markets across the country, and we look forward to seeing this technology continue to evolve for first responders.

As we see more mission-critical solutions hit the market, we continue to be a voice for public safety’s critical-communications requirements within the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) standards body, where the FirstNet Authority has worked to drive mission-critical standards for 5G technologies. We are a driving force in advancing these standards on behalf of America’s first responders.

Driving progress in 2022 and beyond

Certainly, history may mark 2021 as a year of exponential grow for the emergency communications industry. And it could not have come at a better time for public safety; natural disasters and the continuation of the COVID-19 pandemic have tested our nation’s first responders like never before. The FirstNet Authority has been proud to do our part, to make sure they have tools they need to communicate and share information to keep themselves and their communities safe.

But we are not stopping here. Through our engagement efforts with public safety and key stakeholders, we will continue to shape our Roadmap and support informed investments back into FirstNet. In the year ahead, we will continue to drive progress in efforts that have a true operational impact for the men and women who protect our communities every day.

Public safety can schedule a Roadmap engagement by reaching out to a Senior Public Safety Advisor. We look forward to continuing to work together with public safety and AT&T to advance FirstNet to meet the needs of America’s first responders.


Learn more about how FirstNet is transforming public safety communications — contact your local FirstNet Authority Public Safety Advisor and sign up for our discipline newsletters. Follow us on TwitterFacebookInstagram, and LinkedIn for the latest FirstNet Authority updates.

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