One of the key takeaways from the 9/11 Report was that emergency communications were a mess. You would think that was addressed long ago, but only now is a new mobile network called FirstNet arriving, along with a move toward using cellular networks as mission-critical infrastructure.
FirstNet is a mobile network designed by and for first responders using Band 14, a slice of the 700 MHz spectrum that was recovered from UHF TV broadcast during the .
The search for a carrier to turn that spectrum into a first responder network was put out to bid, and AT&T won the 25-year contract in March 2017. All 50 states, DC, and five major US territories signed on to support it though, notably, public service agencies aren't required to use it. Congress seeded the project with $6.5 billion to help pay for the new Band 14 radio gear and network core, and AT&T estimates FirstNet will be about half completed in 2019.
FirstNet isn't just used for first responders all the time: During times of light emergency usage, regular mobile traffic can be routed over FirstNet's Band 14 as well but first responder calls and data have priority over the rest of us, including the ability to preempt or bump consumer traffic if emergency use spikes. Think of it as giving first responder packets a virtual light and siren, as well as the ability to close the wireless road for their exclusive use.
FirstNet is also hardened against catastrophic events that take down mobile networks. A fleet of 70 Cells on Light Trucks (COLTs), stand by around the country to deploy quickly and pull internet access from satellites overhead and translate it into 4G LTE on the ground. Three FirstNet drones are also available to do the same thing in situations where even a truck can't get in.
At the heart of all of this is the almost mythical black SIM that allows a device to get on FirstNet. Once an agency signs onto FirstNet, its administrators decide who gets a black SIM which works with either a special phone designed for emergency responders or late-model iPhones and Galaxy phones that have a compatible 700 MHz radio. That BYOD support is key since approximately 65% of the firefighters in the US are with volunteer departments that may have little or no budget to buy and deploy official phones.
FirstNet pricing is more complicated than the unlimited or family plan you have, due to agency bundling deals and pricing that varies based on device mix: Emergency responders use a wide array of phones, tablets, mobile data terminals and digital wearables.
While priority and preemption are fascinating features, just as vital is a robust cellular network that creates a digital lingua franca in chaotic situations, far more compatible across agencies than the various bespoke mobile radio technologies that failed spectacularly on 9/11.
But if FirstNet creates harmony, it also creates some friction: Verizon has long been the de facto network of choice among first responders, due to its legacy image as the best network and consistent efforts to woo public service agencies, .
Verizon has implemented emergency priority, preemption and network core functions to its network to answer FirstNet's offer, though without the dedicated band, physically separate network core and radio gear, and government imprimatur that FirstNet enjoys. Since emergency responders don't have to use FirstNet, AT&T is on a constant roadshow to get them on board and away from Verizon. The $6.5 billion in government seed money is only about 15% of what AT&T estimates it will spend running FirstNet over the life of the contract.
FirstNet's digital mobile emphasis dovetails with another revolution in emergency responder communication called PTTOC: Push to Talk Over Cellular. It refers to an app that simulates a walkie-talkie but using LTE instead of the kind of proprietary radio network that cities and agencies have built and run for a century.
The most popular PTTOC app is probably the free Zello, while Orion Labs is a leader in mission critical PTTOC, adding features like speech bots that can take action based on what is heard and can track the real-time 3D location of each member of a team or talkgroup.
In response to mobile's emerging role for critical professions, phones like the Sonim XP8 and Kyocera DuraForce Pro 2 have built followings in a sub-industry of Android phones that have special connections for speaker-mics and headsets, hardware push-to-talk buttons on the side of the phone, and very large batteries.
To those of us who don't even think we have enough bars to easily scroll Facebook, it may seem dangerous to rely on a phone app for critical communications, but LTE has earned some trust among first responders as they increasingly use wireless data on the job. As 5G arrives, its lower latency and higher connection density should push the trend over the top. Emergency agencies are also able to bridge their traditional radio gear to PTTOC, to adopt the new tech while wringing full value out of the old.
It's been nearly 20 years since the attacks of 9/11, but FirstNet and PTTOC are big enough gains in the architecture of emergency communications that they make the wait worthwhile.