AT&T opens sub-6 GHz 5G access for FirstNet in 10 cities

ambulance first responder
At the end of the second quarter around 17,000 public safety agencies were signed on to FirstNet, with more than 2.5 million connections. (Getty Images)

AT&T on Monday said first responders that are signed on to FirstNet now have access to its low-band flavor of 5G in 10 cities.

In the 10 locations, FirstNet users can tap the carrier’s sub-6 GHz 5G spectrum, and they include: Austin; Charlotte, North Carolina; Cleveland; Dallas; El Paso, Texas; Houston; Knoxville; Phoenix; Raleigh, North Carolina; and San Antonio.

AT&T had trialed 5G for FirstNet users in Houston back in April. And AT&T already opened 5G using millimeter wave spectrum (branded 5G+) to first responders via FirstNet earlier this year in parts of 38 cities and 20 venues. AT&T expects to add two more cities to that tally and 20 more venues (for a total of 40) by the end of 2021.

RELATED: AT&T starts offering 5G+ to first responders via FirstNet

On the commercial side, AT&T’s sub-6 GHz version of 5G, which in part uses dynamic spectrum sharing to allocate and share spectrum resources between 4G and 5G users, covers 250 million people in the U.S. spanning nearly 500 markets.

According to the carrier, its approach to 5G for first responders is different than typical consumers as public safety users keep priority and preemption for voice communications over LTE. When it comes to data traffic FirstNet, a dedicated public safety network AT&T is building as part of a public-private partnership with the FirstNet Authority, determines the optimal route either using 5G or 4G LTE spectrum.

FirstNet has 20-megahertz of dedicated Band 14 spectrum, but users also get access to AT&T’s commercial LTE spectrum. The carrier doesn’t charge extra for 5G on FirstNet, but first responders need a FirstNet-ready 5G device.  

AT&T previously signaled it would shift to 5G for FirstNet, including upgrades to have a 5G core network.

“5G for FirstNet is not your typical 5G. Now, there’s no doubt that 5G has a lot to offer the entire public safety community, but what’s most important is ensuring that as new technologies become available – whether it’s 5G, augmented reality, edge computing or others – that we take a first responder-centric view in how we approach its deployment,” said Jason Porter, president, Public Sector and FirstNet Program at AT&T in an April statement. “That’s what we committed to 4 years ago when we became public safety’s communications partner, and it’s what we will continue to do for decades to come. 

RELATED: AT&T on track with FirstNet build, most challenging sites remain

In winning the contract to build out FirstNet, AT&T has made a strong push into the public safety and first responder community – bringing increased competition, particularly to historically strong Verizon, in the segment. T-Mobile has made its own moves to try and gain a foothold in the public safety sector.

Speaking on the company’s second quarter earnings call in July, AT&T Communications CEO Jeff McElfresh said more than 17,000 public safety agencies have signed on to FirstNet, with a subscriber base of over 2.5 million users. That’s up from around 16,000 agencies and 2.2 million connections at the end of the first quarter.  

He indicated the figures highlight AT&T’s competitiveness in the space.

“We are growing market share in a highly competitive wireless business and FirstNet has been a critical element for us to take share, and unseat possibly other carrier who have long held a strong position in public safety and this part of the community,” McElfresh said, according to a transcript. “That program continues to perform very strong and we don’t’ see any signs of that slowing down.”

AT&T on Monday also said it launched nationwide interoperability with AT&T ESInet, which is meant to increase resiliency of Next-gen 911 services and is now integrated with the FirstNet network. It serves as automatic wireless backup for public safety answering points (PSAP), so IP-based 911 traffic can be delivered through an AT&T virtual private network (VPN). The carrier said this helps expand network connectivity to PSAPs that are either hard to reach or are hit with an outage.