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Aug 7, 2017

In 2012, Congress created a new government agency called FirstNet and tasked it with building a high-speed wireless network that would allow all first responders in the United States to communicate with each other daily and in times of emergencies. In July, FirstNet awarded AT&T with a 25 year contract to do the actual work. In this episode, hear highlights from a recent hearing about this new network as we examine the wisdom of contracting such an important part of our public safety infrastructure to the private sector.

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Additional Reading


Visual References

Converging Destinies Image Source RAN Image Image Source FirstNet Image Image Source

Sound Clip Sources

Hearing: National Public Safety Network; Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee on Communications; July 20, 2017.


  • Curtis Brown: Virginia Deputy Secretary of Public Safety & Homeland Security
  • Dr. Damon Darsey: University of Mississippi Medical Center Professor
  • Mark Goldstein: GAO Physical Infrastructure Issues Director
  • Chris Sambar: AT&T FirstNet, Senior Vice President
  • Michael Poth: FirstNet CEO

Timestamps & Transcripts

  • 1:10 Sen. Roger Wicker (MS): In 2012 Congress created the First Responder Network Authority to lead the development of a nationwide interoperable public-safety broadband network in the United States. Following the communication’s failures that plagued recovery efforts during 9/11 and other national emergencies, including Hurricane Katrina, there was and still is a clear need for a reliable communications network to support the essential work of our public-safety officials. Such a network would improve coordination among first responders across multiple jurisdictions and enhance the ability of first responders to provide lifesaving emergency services quickly.
  • 6:37 Sen. Brian Schatz (HI): With FirstNet, firefighters will be able to download the blueprint of a burning building before they enter; a police officer arriving at a scene can run a background check or get pictures of a suspect by accessing a federal law enforcement database; most importantly, emergency personnel will not be competing with commercial users for bandwidth. They will have priority on this network, which will be built and hardened to public-safety specifications. It will have rugged eyes and competitive devices and specify public-safety applications.
  • 9:40 Curtis Brown: Last week the governor was proud to announce that Virginia was the first state in the nation to opt in to FirstNet. Virginia opted in to provide current AT&T public-safety subscribers with the benefit of priority services now at no cost to the Commonwealth, as well as the green light to build out of Virginia’s portion of the national public-safety broadband network. We believe that decision to opt in will promote competition within the public-safety communications marketplace, that will reduce costs and drive innovation across all carriers. Opting out was _____(00:31-verily) considered, but the unknown cost and risk associated with deploying and operating a network was not feasible.
  • 19:45 Mark Goldstein: In March 2017 FirstNet awarded a 25-year contract to AT&T to build, operate, and maintain the network. FirstNet’s oversight of AT&T’s performance is very important, given the scope of the network and the duration of the contract. Among GAO’s findings in the report are the following: first, FirstNet has conducted key efforts to establish the network, namely releasing the requests for proposal for the network and awarding the network contract to AT&T. As the contractor, AT&T will be responsible for the overall design, development, production, operation, and evolution of the network.
  • 24:35 Chris Sambar: The AT&T team that I lead is dedicated exclusively to FirstNet. I expect this group to grow to several-hundred employees by this year’s end as we hire people across the country with a broad range of skill sets to help us ramp up our network build out. Overall, AT&T expects to spend $40 billion over the lifetime of this contract and to build an operating unique, nationwide, interoperable, IP-based, high-speed mobile network, encrypted at its core, that will provide first responders priority, primary users with preemption and all other users during times of emergency and network congestion. The First Responder Network will be connected to and leverage off AT&T’s world-class telecommunications platform, valued at nearly $180 billion, including a wireless network that reaches 99.6% of the U.S. population. In addition, AT&T will support first responders 24 by 7 by 365 with a dedicated security-operation center and help desk. We will provide first responders with a highly secure application ecosystem as well as a highly competitive flexible pricing on equipment and services that they select for their unique needs. One of the most important resources that AT&T brings to bear on the new First Responder Network is our best-in-class national disaster-recovery team. We have spent more than a 130,000 working hours on field exercises and disaster-recovery deployments over the last two decades. This team combines network infrastructure, support trailers, recovery engineering-software applications, and boots on the ground filled by full-time and volunteer AT&T disaster-response team members. In order to support the First Responder Network, AT&T will increase its disaster-recovery fleet by adding 72 new custom-designed vehicles, just for the FirstNet mission.
  • 26:55 Chris Sambar: Possibilities include near real-time information on traffic conditions, which can help determine the best route to an emergency for a first responder; wearable sensors and cameras for police and firefighters to help give them better situational awareness and camera-equipped drones and robots that will be able to deliver real-time imagery. Our FirstNet efforts are expected to create 10,000 U.S. jobs over the next two years as well as significant public-private infrastructure investment.
  • 30:25 Michael Poth: We’ve created and delivered state plans on June 19 to 50 states, two territories, and the District of Columbia three months ahead of schedule, and as mentioned, the five governors from five great states have already opted in. None of this could be possible, though, without the public-private framework that Congress established for the FirstNet network, by leveraging private-sector resources, infrastructure, cost savings, public-private partner synergies to deploy, operate, and maintain the system. FirstNet can be now deployed quickly, efficiently, and cost effectively.
  • 36:10 Sen. Roger Wicker (MS): Dr. Darsey mentioned that the Mississsippi wireless communications commission has expressed concerns about FirstNet’s commitment to hardening the network. You mentioned this in your testimony, the need for FirstNet infrastructure to be hardened. Can you discuss why that’s important, and is it more important in the rural areas, and also, in your experience, how do broadband needs differ between urban and rural communities with respect to providing emergency medical services? Dr. Damon Darsey: Sure. Thanks for the question. I’ll give you an example. Couple years ago we had a tornado, as you well remember, that took out a hospital in the northeast part of our state. And the medical center has got a pretty robust program to respond to that, and we did. The challenge in that was it took out a couple of commercial towers, but it did not, after a fairly close hit, take out one of our hardened public-safety communication towers. What that did for us is we lost all ability to communicate data out of that area, which was vital in moving and evacuating the hospital, nursing home, and recovering the people that were there. That’s the piece that is the concern that I think we share, all of us here, of how do we make that as hardened as possible. In terms of rural and urban, from a medical perspective we can do a lot more, as our team is showing in Mississippi and other states, if we know about the patient well before they get close to a hospital. If we can reach out and touch the stroke patient in the middle of the Mississippi Delta, we can dramatically increase their chances of survival and meaningful use after arrival to the hospital. Currently, we’re doing that over radio, and it’s working really well, but now imagine that in the rural areas. In urban areas, it’s vital in the medical world, but here we’re five minutes from multiple hospitals. Now take that as a 45 or 50 minutes away, and what we can do with broadband data in that time is truly life saving and saving of healthcare dollars. There’s a nexus here that FirstNet can combine both of those.
  • 41:00 Michael Poth: Numerous bids were in, and they were analyzed with a great level of detail, and through that process that the Department of Interior assisted us with as the acquisition experts, AT&T came out as the prevailing solution and prevailing company provider. Sen. Bill Nelson (FL): The question is why. Poth: Well, the value that they’re bringing with their existing infrastructure, their ability and size, their financial sustainability to be able to take on something of this nature, and their lowest-risk approach to implementing this in the shortest time was truly some of the value propositions that made them more competitive than some of the other bids that were analyzed.
  • 42:13 Chris Sambar: The initial RFP that FirstNet released contemplated building out a public-safety broadband network using just band class 14, and we responded accordingly. But through discussions, we decided we would extend it beyond just the band class 14, which is the spectrum that was allocated for first responders in 2012. We said we would open up all of the spectrum bands within AT&T. So, essentially, what that means is the day that a state opts in, they have immediate access to AT&T’s entire network, all spectrum bands, and they will see the benefits of FirstNet on all spectrum bands, all wireless towers, from AT&T that are LTE enabled. So I think that’s a tremendous benefit that FirstNet was not expecting when they contemplated the original RFP. But when we brought that, I think they were very pleased with that, and that helped us. Sen. Bill Nelson (FL): So, you’re going to have a level playing field for all device manufacturers. Sambar: Absolutely, sir.
  • 43:15 Sen. Bill Nelson (FL): There must have been some folks in Virginia that suggested that you opt out of the network and chart your own path. Tell me the benefits to Virginia’s first responders of the governor’s decision to opt in. Curtis Brown: Thank you, Senator. The decision to opt in was really based on looking at the benefits that comes with opt in, the immediate priority and preemption services that would come for those who are subscribers to the network. And a major thing, Senator, is to the fact that it comes at no cost to the Commonwealth. We have been disproportionately impacted by sequestration and other aspects—the governor had to close a 300-million-dollar budget deficit—and so looking at the cost it would take to build a network and sustain it, it just was not feasible.
  • 47:45 Chris Sambar: We initially envisioned, when we launched the State Plan portal on June 19, that we would have roughly 50 user IDs and passwords per state. That would be 50 individuals who would access the portal. We immediately got feedback that states wanted more, and we are offering more. So, we have a state right now, as a matter of fact, 227 login and user IDs have been issued. So, it shouldn’t be an issue for a state if they have additional people. The only requirements we have, Senator, is that, as Mr. Poth said, that it’s an official email address, somebody in the state who works for the state— Unknown Senator: Right. Sambar: —or an authorized consultant. Either of those is fine. We just don’t want, like, a @gmail, @hotmail, someone that we don’t know who they are. Unknown Senator: Right, okay.
  • 53:14 Michael Poth: How do the states hold us accountable? As FirstNet shifts gears from developing a proposal and making an award, for the next 25 years we are going to be in a position to work with the states, continuous and public safety in all of those states, to make sure that all of their expectations, both from the State Plans and in the future, are being met and translated. If appropriate, we back into contractual actionable items. Or if AT&T, for example, is not meeting the requirements or the expectations, FirstNet will, on behalf of public safety and those states, enforce the terms of the contract.
  • 54:55 Michael Poth: Canada is using the same exact spectrum that we’ll be utilizing with AT&T, so there’s a lot of synergies. We’ve spent a great deal of time coordinating and comparing notes with Canada and the public-safety entities in that country as to what we’re doing so that there is the inoperability between the countries will also be realized.
  • 1:08:50 Chris Sambar: So we have had a number of states as well as federal agencies we’ve been in communication with, and some of the states have been very direct that they’re interested us putting our LTE equipment on state-, city-, municipal-owned assets. That would give them the benefit of revenue from AT&T through a lease agreement. It would also give us a benefit of being able to build out the network faster.
  • 1:24:20 Michael Poth: AT&T’s already been doing this, as mentioned, for years with their fleet of 700 deployables. Now with the 72 dedicated, which are much smaller units which is going to give us the ability to maybe get those into areas that are a little tougher to get to, we’re very excited about that. That is an absolute addition to the solution that we’re going to be able to bring to public safety quickly.
  • 1:25:50 Chris Sambar: So, we will be building out band class 14 over the coming five years across a significant portion of our network. In the meantime, before band class 14 is built out, we will be using our commercial network. There are requirements in the contract with FirstNet over how quickly we need to build out band class 14, and we have to hit those milestones in order to receive the payments due to us from FirstNet. If we don’t hit those milestones, we don’t receive the payments, so we will be aggressively building out band class 14 for first responders. Again, in the meantime, they will have access to all of AT&T’s bands. So to say it simply, if you are a first responder, Senator, you will not know whether you’re on band class 14 or any other AT&T band, but you will have the exact same experience regardless of what band you are on on AT&T network. Sen. Roger Wicker (MS): Your position isn’t the service that’s provided, and the consumer and the public-safety user, to them it will be immaterial where it’s coming from. Sambar: The way I like to say— Exactly. The way I say it is this: public safety has been told for many years that the magic of FirstNet happens on band class 14, and we’ve changed that. That’s not correct anymore. The magic happens on the AT&T network period, and it doesn’t matter where you are, you’re going to have the exact same experience. So we’ve extended it far beyond the band class 14 to our entire network. Wicker: Will you build out the class 14 spectrum only where it is economically viable, or will you build it out where there is written requirement in the arrangement between you and FirstNet? Sambar: We are building band class 14 where we need the capacity in our network. So in order to provide priority and preemptive services to first responders and have enough capacity for everyone that’s on the network, including the first responders, there are places where we will need additional capacity; that’s where we’re building— Wicker: And you will determine that need. Sambar: AT&T, based on capacity triggers—obviously, we’ve been doing this for a long time—based on capacity triggers that we see in the network, we build out band class 14 as additional capacity on individual—and this is done on a tower-by-tower basis.
  • 1:28:00 Sen. Roger Wicker (MS): Are you able to say what approximate percentage of the lower 48 landmass will be covered by band class 14 build out? Chris Sambar: Unfortunately, I am not, Senator. That’s proprietary between FirstNet and AT&T. I would say, again, it’s a significant portion, though. Wicker: Can you be more specific than “significant”? Sambar: That would be proprietary, Senator. I apologize. Wicker: And what makes it proprietary? Sambar: The specific details of the contract between FirstNet and AT&T. There’s a number of specific details that are proprietary, Senator. Wicker: That is proprietary and not available to the public— Sambar: That’s correct, Senator. Wicker: —or to the Congress. Sambar: That’s correct, Senator.
  • 1:29:35 Sen. Roger Wicker: Then in terms of this coverage, which you said really shouldn’t matter what band it’s coming over— Chris Sambar: Mm-hmm. Wicker: —are you able to say what percentage of the lower 48 landmass will be covered in one way or the other? Sambar: One way or the other? Wicker: Yes. Apart, of course, from the deployables. Sambar: So, 99.6% of the U.S. population will be covered by AT&T’s network.
  • 1:39:05 Chris Sambar: The vast major—as we understand it, based on our research and FirstNet’s research—the vast majority of firefighters, for example, are not issued devices for their daily use at work, especially volunteer firefighters. Greater than 70% of police officers are in the same situation: they are not provided a device. They’re using their personal devices. We are going to make available the FirstNet network to all of those first responders, regardless of whether you’re a volunteer, whether your agency provides you a device, or whether you bring your own personal device. They will have access to the FirstNet network. Once we can verify their credentials and ensure that we have the right people on the network, they will have access to all of those features and benefits, and it will come at a significantly lower price than they’re paying today for their personal or commercial service. So it’s a tremendous benefit to all first responders.
  • 1:39:55 Sen. Roger Wicker (MS): On user fees, will they cost the same for all network users, or will they vary by regions, public-safety agencies, or states? Chris Sambar: It’s difficult to answer because there are different use cases, so it depends. If you’re a large department and you want unlimited data and you have a number of applications that you want preinstalled on the device and you have mobile-device management software, that would be one use case. There may be a rural department that wants to connect body cameras and dashboard video camera from a police department. It will depend on the use case. Wicker: So it’s use case and not regions and states. Sambar: That’s correct, sir. Wicker: That would be the variable. Sambar: That’s correct.
Hearing: Public Safety Communications; House Committee Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, September 29, 2005.


  • David Boyd: Homeland Security Dept SAFECOM Program Director
  • Timothy Roemer: Member of the 9/11 Commission, Director of the Center for National Policy
  • Art Botterell: Emergency Information Consultant

Timestamps & Transcripts

  • 30:44 David Boyd: Interoperability’s not a new issue. It was a problem in Washington, D.C. when the Air Florida flight crashed into the Potomac in 1982, in New York City when the Twin Towers were first attacked in 1993, in 1995 when the Murrah Building was destroyed in Oklahoma City, and in 1999 at Columbine. Too many public-safety personnel cannot communicate by radio, because their equipment is still incompatible, or the frequencies they are assigned to are different and they haven’t got bridging technologies available. They operate on 10 different frequency bands, and they run communication systems that are often proprietary and too often 30 or more years old. Over 90% of the nation’s public-safety wireless infrastructure is financed, owned, operated, and maintained by the more than 60,000 individual local jurisdictions—police, fire, and emergency services—that serve the public.
  • 1:43:00 Timothy Roemer: Let me give you a couple examples of what the 9/11 Commission found as to some of these problems. We found all kinds of compelling instances of bravery and courage, people going into burning buildings and rescuing people. They might have rescued more. We might have saved more of the fire department chiefs, officers, police officers, emergency personnel, if they would have had public-radio spectrum to better communicate. At 9:59 in the morning on 9/11 four years ago, a general evacuation order was given to firefighters in the North Tower. The South Tower had collapsed. A place that held up to 25,000 people had been diminished to cement, steel, and ash. The people, then, in the North Tower, many of the chiefs in the lobby, didn’t even know that the other tower had collapsed, or else they might have been able to get more people out more quickly. We had comments from people saying such things as, we didn’t know it had collapsed. Somebody actually said, Mr. Chairman, that people watching TV had more information than we did in the lobby on 9/11 in the North Tower. People on TV in Florida or California knew more than our first responders on site in New York City.
  • 1:45:10 Timothy Roemer: Mr. Chairman, then we had a disaster happen in the southern part of our country in New Orleans where we had other communication problems. In New Orleans, there’re three neighboring parishes were using different equipment on different frequencies. They couldn’t communicate. We had National Guard in Mississippi communicating by human courier, not by radio frequencies; and we had helicopters up in the air looking at our own citizens on the roofs of their homes in New Orleans, screaming and yelling for help, but they couldn’t talk in the helicopters with the boats in the water to try to find out who was rescued, who wasn’t, and who needed help.
  • 1:55:45 Art Botterell: Third, we can no longer afford to rely on vendor-driven design of our emergency-communications infrastructure. Businesses are responsible for maximizing shareholder value, not for protecting the public welfare. We need independent sources of information and planning for our future emergency infrastructure lest we continue to get updated versions of the same old thing.

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