From wildfires in California to hurricanes on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, communications are the bedrock of emergency response and management. However, those communications can be challenging when quickly evolving situations cross multiple jurisdictions — a truth painfully learned on 9/11, when more than a dozen agencies found it difficult to relay critical information to the right people at the right time.
Today, AT&T announced that all 50 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia have officially signed on to FirstNet, a government program operated by AT&T to provide universal emergency response communications across the country. States had until yesterday to officially opt-in or opt-out of the FirstNet system. California, Florida, Mississippi and New York were among the states that waited until the last minute to confirm their participation.
This is a major win for AT&T, which officially won the FirstNet contract this past March. The contract stipulated that AT&T would manage the network for 25 years, and the company committed to spending $40 billion to manage and operate the network. In exchange, the company would receive 20 MHz of critical wireless spectrum from the FCC, as well as payments from the government totaling $6.5 billion for the initial network rollout.
The true win for AT&T though is in the actual spectrum itself, which is in the 700 Mhz band commonly used for LTE signals. While the FirstNet spectrum is prioritized for first responders, it also can be used for consumer wireless applications when an emergency is not taking place, which should improve cellular reception and bandwidth for AT&T customers, particularly in urban areas.
The bigger loss, though, is with the U.S. taxpayer. FirstNet has had something of a painful birth and maturation process. Originally created as part of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, it was designed by Congress to create an exclusive network for first responders, who presumably couldn’t use consumer technology like smartphones to communicate with each other. That was following recommendations from the 9/11 Commission that encouraged Congress to allocate a dedicated public safety spectrum.
The program has had a glacial implementation process ever since. As Steven Brill described in The Atlantic last year: “FirstNet is in such disarray that 15 years after the problem it is supposed to solve was identified, it is years from completion—and it may never get completed at all. According to the GAO, estimates of its cost range from $12 billion to $47 billion, even as advances in digital technology seem to have eliminated the need to spend any of it.”
At issue is whether the rapid improvement of consumer wireless technology — which is available today — far outweighs the performance of a hypothetical public safety network that remains a glimmer in the mind’s eye.
Most interoperability problems have been solved by modern technology, and so the question becomes what the buildout is really for anyway. Why did the government give exclusive access to a critical part of the spectrum that could have benefited millions of consumers, while also provided expedited access for first responders?
For AT&T, the victory provides a new source of revenue from local police and fire departments, who will presumably come to rely on FirstNet for their emergency communications. It also gets a serious boost in its spectrum, along with free cash from taxpayers. But for all of us, it seems billions of dollars will be spent to create a specialist comm channel, when existing technologies are more than up to the task of providing these highly reliable services.