Peggy and Stacy Schwartz, vice president, public safety and FirstNet sales, AT&T, discuss the importance of FirstNet, and how it is designed to improve communications across the U.S. public safety community and the milestones it has already achieved. They examine the importance of having a dedicated, highly secure communications platform for first responder traffic, and what’s to come in 2020.
So Stacy, I have to start the show off by congratulating you and the FirstNet team for reaching more than a million connections. Pretty impressive.
There are some people who might not know what FirstNet is, tell us all about that.
Sure. Let’s start with the basics. FirstNet came out of a communications need that was discovered after 9/11. First it is the nation’s only wireless communications platform that’s dedicated to America’s first responders and all of those that support our first responders.
It’s a dedicated network and it is purposely built exclusively for public safety. The genesis of the network and how it came to fruition was really by eliciting what the requirements and the needs were of first responders around the country.
So the network is specifically designed with public safety in mind, what public safety asked for, and it continues to provide new capabilities pretty much every day, which is how we have evolved to get to the milestone you mentioned earlier.
When we think about public safety, for most of us, that’s the most important thing. We just want to know that the first responders are always there, right? That there’s something that sends a message and they’re there when we need them, right?
Yes, absolutely. So when you think about our police, fire, emergency medical services, so the ambulances that come to get folks when they’re in distress, as well as our 911 services are our public safety access points, all of the individuals that support those mission critical services that support us and the community, just like you mentioned, would avail themselves of this network. Those are the first responders that FirstNet was really dedicated to.
Speed is one of the clear advantages here. Can you talk more about that, why that’s so important?
Yes, so we look at FirstNet at AT&T as a completely different network, right? And it’s not just a very fast or the fastest network. It is a distinct, unique network. It is a separate network. We have a dedicated, I’ll call it a brain, if you will, or a core to that network, which distinguishes it from our other commercial network.
It uses all of the LTE bands that we have access to on AT&T as well as a unique bit of spectrum that the federal government is enabling us to use for FirstNet, called Band 14 and it’s almost like it’s a dedicated highway for first responders.
It’s high quality spectrum that’s specifically for FirstNet. So it would provide public safety for the folks we just mentioned, a dedicated lane, if you will, of connectivity when they need it.
And that Band 14 that I just referenced is being deployed. In fact, it’s in over 675 markets or communities across the country today. Everywhere from rural and tribal communities to some of our nation’s biggest cities.
There’s got to be lots of other benefits behind having that Band 14, that highway that you just described.
Right. So I think, just to start at the basics, so it’s the fact that we have this unique highway that’s dedicated for public safety and all of the community that supports it. But the other aspect of it is the fact that it’s always on, right?
So you don’t have to do anything when you’re on FirstNet to activate that capability, which prioritizes your traffic. It’s always on. There’s an identifier in the service that says “It’s Stacy, is a first responder.” I have that capability, unlike other services where you might be asked to actually do something and initiate a code, etc.
I mentioned to you earlier that it is a separate network and it’s dedicated entirely to the first responders. That in and of itself is unique, but there are other aspects, as you mentioned, that are benefits to the first responders.
So by virtue of the fact that we’ve created a unique brain, as I call it, or a core, we’ve created a highly secure environment for that traffic. So all the traffic going and traversing that core is encrypted, which, for our first responders, is something that we feel is absolutely critical. As did that community, they asked for highly secure, more prioritized secure traffic.
First, FirstNet always has a security operation center to support all the users, 24/7, so a dedicated security operation center that is there to support our customers.
Same thing with our customer service. There’s a dedicated group of individuals that understand the mission of first responders, 24/7 as well. And then in addition again, still staying on the theme of always on and always present, we know that there are certain unique instances, whether it’s after a disaster or if critical infrastructure based on a disaster or some unique incident occurs. We know we have to keep that connectivity up.
So part of what we’re doing is, as a part of our FirstNet program, is we have added additional what we’ll call “deployable assets” that allow for connectivity even in remote locations where, whether it’s devastated by fire or hurricane, we have portable cell sites, if you will, that are FirstNet dedicated that we will bring to an area that has been struck by disaster.
These assets are available 24/7. There is a unique system by which we deploy them across the country, making sure that they get to their intended destinations as quickly as possible. And these assets would provide the same capabilities or connectivity as a cell tower. So again, something that’s above and beyond our normal network capabilities, these are dedicated to the FirstNet network.
And then if you go beyond just the basic foundation of network, we have the entire device manufacturing industry that has created devices that are FirstNet ready. Based on the spectrum and the capability of the devices, there are over a hundred devices today that are what we call “FirstNet ready.” Whether It’s a ruggedized device or a wearable device, these are all capable of taking advantage of the unique networking capabilities of FirstNet.
And then if you leap one step above that, the whole point beyond connectivity is creating situational awareness for the community of interest we’ve been discussing. We’ve created unique applications with the oversight of the federal government or the FirstNet authority that reside on the FirstNet platform that will enhance the ability of first responders to do their job both for their own safety and for the community safety.
So, you asked just to sum up what other benefits are there beyond the networking infrastructure and the uniqueness of the network and speed? We believe all of the attributes I just mentioned make this a very unique, discreet platform for our nation’s first responders.
And I think when you talk about that and some of these benefits, you’re working with many people. So you have to have routers and lots of things that are working simultaneously, right? All these mobile solutions that you’re describing that being able to get to first responders to be able to do that and it’s not an easy task.
And one of the reasons I say that is because when you have a natural disaster, there’s lots of things happening, so you have to know this thing is up all the time. In an earthquake, things are happening that you have to know that this is up all the time to be able to respond. Correct?
Yes. Yes. So a couple of things I would say to you is, in addition to, and this is something that we are very proud of, the fact that the network prides itself on always being there, always on for first responders and we know things will happen.
You mentioned an earthquake. Whether it’s a fire, an earthquake, a hurricane, floods, it could be a law enforcement incident. We need to make sure that the network is working as it is positioned to be.
The thing that I would tell you about that as well as I mentioned those deployables, those are available for our first responders. But one other thing I did not mention to you is the people that support this network.
These are folks that have come from a career, potentially in this business, supporting public safety, maybe an industry. Quite a few of them have come actually from public safety, so they understand the challenges in responding to an emergency and part of what we do when we deploy these assets is, with the collaboration and participation of the local response teams, we embed some of our staff into the emergency operation centers and these are folks that really understand what the dynamics to your point, lots of stuff is going on.
We want to make sure we have the right people who understand all that and are used to and adaptive to an environment where there is lots of stuff going on and things need to be triaged and safety is first. So beyond just the basic communication capabilities that FirstNet has distinguished itself with, we have people that understand the uniqueness of that situation you just referenced.
One of the things I found really interesting that you all recently did and I was looking at the pictures, was the blimp FirstNet, FirstNet One, and I found that so intriguing because we have so many. I don’t know if now we are aware of them because of social media, or it just seems like we just know so much is happening in the world around us when natural disasters occur and where all can see it first up close and personal.
But it just seemed that you made that announcement and you’re able to look at what’s happening in cases of a natural disaster. Talk about that., because I think it, in some ways it’s really interesting what you’re doing there.
Oh, thank you. I appreciate that. Yeah, we’re really proud of the FirstNet One capability, one of its kind, public safety solution. We’re always looking to innovate. We continue to work with the public safety community and you know, our own innovators within AT&T to see what could we do better. How can we continue to improve upon the capabilities we bring in an emergency?
You know, both from our own operational efficiency, but also creating greater capabilities given. We’ve just had some really extensive disaster, so FirstNet One, as you call it, more commonly the blimp, is a 55 foot aerostat.
So obviously, it goes up in the air like a blimp and we believe it’s the next addition to our deployable network, just like those trucks, those cell on wheels. But this is obviously in the air.
It can fly up to a thousand feet and provide a much broader coverage area, at two times the coverage area of some of the other solutions I referenced as part of the deployables, like cell on wheels and the flying cell on wheels.
In addition, we know we may be entering inclement weather areas. It can remain operational with wind speeds up to 50 miles an hour and withstand winds even up to 70 miles per hour. So while that’s not ideal conditions, we know we’re deploying in areas that may have just had bad weather or maybe in a rough area where there are spires and there’s high winds.
The other really cool thing or unique thing about FirstNet One is it can stay up in the air for about two weeks before needing any additional helium. So that provides connectivity over an extended period.
So it’s not just right after the disaster or during, it could be over an extended period of time. As we know, we’ve had recovery situations that go at least that long and it’s tethered to a trailer to provide satellite or wire line connectivity.
And it also keeps the aerostat in place over the area we’re looking to connect. And it gives all the benefits of FirstNet that I previously mentioned. So we’re really excited about it and we just launched it and we always make sure that before we bring something forward, it’s tested and we believe it merits and is capable of being deployed to support our first responders. So certainly, I’m happy to talk about it. We think it’s one of the coolest innovations to add our FirstNet fleet.
Talk a little bit about other examples of what you guys have done so far. Because I know that you do this and you’re out there every day. You’re in the trenches with this and you’ve given us some great examples of the benefits, but talk about what you’ve seen so far that you’ve said, “Look, this is really done an amazing thing and this is why we’re so proud of it.”
Sure. I think I’ve been a little stuck on natural disasters, right? So we’ve seen devastating fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, all just broad devastation.
But FirstNet has been used in search and rescue missions, whether it’s a training exercise to prepare for search and rescue or we did have a couple of incidents over the past year, both in Colorado and several other places where based on the fact that those individuals looking for the lost person, were using FirstNet in remote areas.
They were able to remain connected where they otherwise would not have been able to. And in both situations we were able to locate the individual that was lost. So that’s, certainly an instance that I would mention to you as well. And, we have supported during earthquakes. You mentioned earthquakes earlier. We had an earthquake in Anchorage that was a seven on the Richter scale.
The police chief in Anchorage actually noted that others around him had trouble connecting on their devices, when they were trying to connect to first responders. FirstNet gave an uninterrupted connectivity during that earthquake time period that the other networks couldn’t.
So there’s examples like those that I think are just truly, from my standpoint, so rewarding to hear about that the platform you’re creating is certainly for communications, but the real life benefit to individuals, human beings out in the community, and what that communication capability was able to do for our community is just unequaled.
Talk a little bit about some of the other industries beyond public safety and first responders. I’m sure there’s a whole lot more.
Sure. I’ve referenced it as the communities that support first responders, we call them extended primary users or they could be the second line of responders. But in some instances, that community of interest may even be on the front line.
So if you think about storms we referenced, think about a tree removal service., that you certainly can’t pass an impassable road to get to a community that might have been devastated if the road is impassable.
So a tree removal service is not something that I would have thought of initially, but all of these emergency platforms. Certainly utility companies, when utility lines are down and we’re trying to make sure people can remain safe and healthy after a disaster, we need the utility companies to be able to communicate with that same priority that our first responders do as well.
And then transportation would be another community. Certainly that needs to remain viable and able to communicate at all times, especially when there is a disaster of any kind.
So those are just some examples that work and coordinate. But one of the bigger ones that I think is maybe a little bit more intuitive and obvious is healthcare. So when the emergency medical service is in operation and an ambulance is taking a patient to a hospital, we need the hospital personnel to be able to communicate as well.
So we’ve seen a great deal of interest within the healthcare community in FirstNet as well. I can give you an interesting example. We are working with a company that provides renal support for those folks that are on dialysis that need support for their kidneys.
If that company cannot operate in a disaster, if you think about the life connection to kidney patients and how they need to make sure that they are on dialysis, we need to make sure they’re connected as well. So there’s lots of unique aspects within the healthcare universe as well that absolutely need communication as their lifeblood and FirstNet is there to provide that.
It’s interesting hearing you talk about this. I know the government’s going to announce some more open spectrum and I wonder if all of this will be able to allow more of this.
I imagine that you could do all kinds of things going in the future if you’re allowed to do that. It just sounds like there’s such great opportunities to really cater to such vertical industries with all this great opportunity that we never thought of before.
Yeah, I think it happens, I’m sure in your world you see this as well, but as soon as the opportunity and the platform is created, it’s been amazing to see through our reach of our team, how this help person that’s being applied to help serve the mission of safety and security in the community.
So everything from wearable devices that may provide that capability,we just mentioned the blimp, we’re innovating around that, and then industries that have just some very unique aspects of the protection that they provide, like I mentioned to you, have come forward to say “we’ve heard about FirstNet” and they really would like to be able to take advantage of FirstNet. They obviously would have to qualify to be on the network.
But that capability is endless when you think about all of the things that are being done in our community to protect citizens and protect first responders. So, I think you referenced, there’s endless capabilities that we’re excited to continue to grow.
That’s where the safety and security of all of this comes in. People have to qualify. And that’s where the IoT and the things that you’ve done with FirstNet offerings and solutions. That’s a key point to this, right?
Yes. So another aspect of what is unique about FirstNet is there is no other network or capability like FirstNet in the United States. And that is the FirstNet authority is part of the federal government.
So while we are a commercial company that has been tasked with, and awarded the contract to build FirstNet and to operate FirstNet, we are closely accountable to the federal government.
So we can’t just put anyone on the network, we have guidelines and that’s what makes this network so unique and special. And then there are all the attributes of the network. We work very close in collaboration with FirstNet authority to make sure that the service and the applications that we’re putting forward, we’re all feeling the accountability to FirstNet authorities.
So we do have an objective third party that we are contractually accountable to and we must comply with the contract to make sure we’re supporting the right users all the time. So another unique attribute of FirstNet that makes it that much better, if you will.
Your guys are developing push-to-talk and that’s coming up now here.
Yes. So you know, yet again we are looking at this, making public safety’s mission the first priority. So push-to-talk. So for those folks that don’t really understand what that is, that’s the capability to really use your device to push-to-talk much like you would with a radio.
And so public safety has long relied on land, mobile radio, but our LTE devices, FirstNet devices, can actually inter operate with those radios. And to take it to what we consider public safety’s mission critical service, we have been working on the requirements, the standards testing to launch mission critical push-to-talk, which we will do in the beginning of the year.
And we believe this, again, is an unequal differentiated service that will allow public safety to be able to use communication tools differently than they ever have before. And so we’re really proud for that to be entering into our service catalog early in the early part of 2020.
What’s coming for FirstNet in 2020, beyond push-to-talk?
So in addition, we’ll continue to grow our coverage and then more interesting devices that will be able to do things like connect infrastructure with lighting, other critical infrastructure as well.
So from an IOT perspective, more certification there, and then new devices that you’ll see that are actually bridging the divide between more of an everyday device and ruggedized devices and then more applications as well. So, all of that in 2020.