AT&T CFO: FirstNet’s prioritized service for public safety ‘a challenge’ to net neutrality

FirstNet is charged with building a nationwide wireless network for public safety. (FirstNet)

During an appearance this morning at an investor event, AT&T’s CFO pointed out that FirstNet’s pre-emption requirements for public safety users present “a challenge with the net neutrality process because you are giving prioritized service to police, firefighters.”

“But quite frankly I think everyone would agree that that’s probably a good thing,” explained John Stephens, AT&T’s SVP and CFO. “It’s just one of the uniquenesses of some of the other arguments that we have to deal with.”

When questioned about the topic further, Stephens said that net neutrality proponents didn’t really take FirstNet’s public-safety pre-emption requirements into account when drafting net neutrality guidelines.

“We have the ability today to give [FirstNet public-safety users] preferential treatment. What we’ll have by the end of the year is what we call ‘relentless pre-emption,’ such that if there’s capacity for 10 calls and 10 calls are being used, and a firefighter gets on, one of the 10 people gets booted off and the firefighter gets in,” he said. “Quite frankly, I don’t think they thought about it [when crafting net neutrality guidelines]. The FirstNet process has been around since 9/11. It came out of the 9/11 events, and so that had been out there for a long time, and so I don’t even think it was even considered.”

AT&T recently won a $6.5 billion contract with the U.S. government’s FirstNet effort to build a nationwide LTE wireless network for public safety users like police, firefighters and others using FirstNet’s 20 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum, which AT&T will combine with its existing LTE network.

As of Tuesday, 12 states have opted in to the program, with Montana announcing Tuesday morning that AT&T will “will build, operate and maintain a highly secure wireless broadband communications network for Montana’s public safety community at no cost to the state for the next 25 years.” The network is intended to be available first to public-safety users when they need it, and AT&T’s customers when they don’t.

Related: FirstNet: All AT&T LTE bands to be available to public safety this year

Under the Obama administration, the FCC passed net neutrality guidelines that are intended to prevent service providers from prioritizing some types of internet traffic over other types—for example, slowing the speeds of a video service that competes directly with a service provider’s video offering. However, the FCC under the Trump administration has signaled that it intends to dismantle much of the agency’s existing net neutrality guidelines.

“What we expect is that it will be one of the largest and most successful of all time public-private partnerships,” AT&T’s Stephen said of FirstNet, explaining that AT&T plans to deploy its WCS and AWS-3 spectrum at the same time as it deploys FirstNet’s 700 MHz spectrum. “We can put all three 2x10s [MHz block], or all 60 MHz of spectrum, into service at the same time. So, it’s very efficient. You pay for one tower climb and you get three units of spectrum put into service at the same time.”

Stephens added that AT&T “would expect to begin the [FirstNet] build this year on the states that have opted in,” and that work would begin “as soon as possible.”

“I would think that we would have a significant piece of this, possibly most of it done in possibly a three-year period, but we will see,” he said. “We are ready to go.”

“It’s really something that our network team believes can be a huge advantage over the longterm basis for us,” Stephens added, pointing out that AT&T would deploy the latest in LTE and, eventually, 5G network technology as it works to build out its network. “We have coverage that essentially covers all of the United States. It’s a huge opportunity.”

Stephens said that AT&T expects its overall capex to increase as a result of its FirstNet work over the next three to four years.