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CHIPS Articles: The FirstNet Difference

The FirstNet Difference
Dedicated nationwide network delivers much-needed technology upgrade to first responders
By Christopher Algiere - October-December 2018
As first responders nationwide steadily increase their reliance on technology to support day-to-day work and emergency responses, more attention is being placed on how to secure reliable broadband access for mission critical operations. Whether it’s EMS access to electronic patient records, military police scanning license plates or a fire-fighting service relying on GPS technologies – these technologies are only as good as the network that carries the signal.

With FirstNet service now available and in use across the country, the network has forever changed emergency communications for first responders. Now that first responders have access to the nation’s only broadband network being built for public safety, they are guaranteed an “always on” connection to improve and enhance emergency communications to help them do their jobs more effectively, efficiently and safely.

The Inception of FirstNet

The idea for FirstNet originated with the public safety community. In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Congress passed legislation that allocated 20 megahertz (MHz) of spectrum to public safety and $6.5 billion to create the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet Authority). The law directed FirstNet Authority to “ensure the building, deployment, and operation of” the first nationwide public safety broadband network dedicated to public safety use – also known as FirstNet.

After extensive consultation and outreach to the public safety community, and following federal procurement processes, the FirstNet Authority selected AT&T to serve as its network partner to deploy a network that would best meet the needs of law enforcement, fire, EMS, 911 and other public safety entities.

By the end of 2017, with every U.S. state and territory choosing to opt-in to FirstNet, the FirstNet Authority gave the green light to start deploying FirstNet’s dedicated public safety spectrum (Band 14). With the use of AT&T’s existing infrastructure and the ongoing deployment of public safety spectrum, FirstNet services are available today and the network is continuing to expand in coverage and capacity for first responders nationwide.

FirstNet Today

Today, FirstNet is delivering a much needed technology upgrade to help first responders connect to critical real-time information using advanced technologies. FirstNet subscribers are taking advantage of key public safety capabilities of the network, including priority and preemption.

With FirstNet, priority and preemption “always on”— FirstNet subscribers don’t have to take any action to enable these public safety features. This means that services will be available to first responders on FirstNet when the general public nearby is unable to access the internet via a mobile device due to heavy use and congestion on commercial networks.

FirstNet not only provides a reliable, always-on connection, but also allows public safety to send and receive data, voice and text transmissions with the security a life-saving mission demands. FirstNet provides end-to-end encryption, which is enabled by a dedicated FirstNet core network — hardware that separates public safety traffic from commercial traffic. The dedicated core is benefitting public safety now, and in the future, the core will enable additional mission critical features for first responders, such as mission critical push-to-talk and location-based services.

The FirstNet Difference

The FirstNet Authority and AT&T have also been testing and validating devices and applications that run on FirstNet. Once these tools are approved, public safety can communicate over high-quality devices and apps with extended coverage and interoperability on the network. All FirstNet subscribers have access to ruggedized smartphones and tablets, and a growing list of public safety apps that ensures that first responders are sharing real-time data, images and video to make emergency communications more effective and efficient.

As the FirstNet Authority continues to advocate on behalf of public safety, the agency also engages with military and civil federal public safety organizations on the use of broadband, mission critical services, innovation opportunities and planning that is needed to ensure that our nation’s first responders have access to a reliable and robust communication network.

Through the FirstNet Authority’s ongoing consultation and engagements with the Department of Defense Chief Information Officer’s Public Safety Emergency Management Communications Working Group and the individuals it serves, the FirstNet Authority’s federal team is able to more completely understand the mission and challenges of the Navy and the Marine Corps’ public safety and emergency management organizations. The unique data management, data security and device requirements of the Department of Defense are key topics of government to government discussions and present opportunities for the FirstNet network to deliver a robust, wireless broadband capability that is built for and by public safety across the 56 states, territories, and the District of Columbia.

The FirstNet Authority federal team looks forward to continuing our ongoing dialogues and starting new relationships across the uniformed services. To learn more about FirstNet, visit

Christopher Algiere is the Director Federal and National Programs, First Responder Network Authority, U.S. Department of Commerce.

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Photo of a FirstNet "Cell on light truck" (Colt) deployed to Bay County, Florida after Hurricane Michael to keep first responders connected.
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