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AT&T’s FirstNet public safety network is in final testing

AT&T says its long-awaited nationwide public safety wireless network is almost ready for customers. Meanwhile, Verizon says its own dedicated first-responder network is ready now.

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Diane Macdonald

A key milestone in the nationwide public safety wireless network known as FirstNet has been met, according to AT&T, which is building the network.

AT&T announced on Tuesday that the "core" of the dedicated 4G wireless network, which acts as the "brain and nervous system" for the network, is live and ready for local agencies to begin the work of connecting to it.

AT&T will continue to test the network with a limited number of customers to "validate that the network will be there when public safety needs it," FirstNet Chief Technology Officer Jeff Bratcher wrote in a blog post. He said final testing for the network should be completed by May.

FirstNet was created by legislation that authorized the FCC's broadcast incentive auction in 2012 and was funded by FCC wireless spectrum auctions. Its purpose is to create a dedicated wireless network that is separate from but uses the same airwaves as a commercial network. The idea was to ensure the most efficient use of spectrum, while providing first-responders across the country guaranteed priority access to the network when a disaster strikes.

The network uses 700 MHz wireless spectrum that was carved out by the FCC in 2008. This low-frequency spectrum had previously been allocated for broadcast TV and is ideal for building a nationwide network with indoor coverage because it allows wireless signals to propagate over long distances and penetrate obstacles like walls.  

The network makes good on a recommendation laid out in by the 9/11 Commission over a decade ago that documented first-responder communication failures during rescue operations following the collapse of World Trade Center towers.

Public safety experts emphasize that FirstNet's live testing is a significant milestone, but that it's not yet available for public safety organizations to use just yet.

"A lot of hard work went into this and congratulations are in order, but it is a waypoint, not a destination," said Rear Admiral Jamie Barnett, Chair of the Telecommunications Group at the Venable law firm and a former Chief of the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau. "Public safety needs FirstNet's deployment everywhere to know whether the promise of a nationwide, interoperable public safety network has been fulfilled."

Meanwhile, Verizon also announced on Tuesday that the dedicated public safety 4G LTE network it has built for first-responder subscribers is open for business starting this week.  

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