AT&T’s FirstNet uses ‘deployable’ fleet for COVID response

FirstNet firefighter mobile
The COVID-19 crisis has given AT&T’s FirstNet the opportunity to use its fleet of 76 “deployables” to provide emergency internet service. (FirstNet)

The COVID-19 crisis has given AT&T’s FirstNet the opportunity to use its fleet of 76 “deployables” to provide emergency internet service. This fleet includes everything from a ground-based Cell on Wheels, a heavy-duty satellite cell on a light truck and a blimp.

Jason Porter, senior vice president of AT&T’s FirstNet, speaking on a Cisco virtual press event today, said of the coronavirus pandemic, “FirstNet was formed for disasters like this. This was like a fire, flood, and tornado in every city at the same time.” He said FirstNet has seen “a huge growth in demand,” and its fleet of deployables has been directed all over the country and to U.S. territories to provide emergency internet connections.

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In December 2019, AT&T announced that FirstNet had passed 1 million connections. All of FirstNet’s deployable assets can be dispatched on the scene within 14 hours following the initial emergency request. Porter said during the current crisis, for example, FirstNet sent one of its satellite trucks to provide a land-to-ship internet service for the Navy hospital ship Mercy in Los Angeles.

On today’s Cisco event, Andrés Irlando, Verizon’s SVP and president of public sector and Verizon Connect, said the company’s networks have performed well during the pandemic. He said prior to COVID, Verizon handled 650-670 million calls a day, but since the crisis it’s had days where it’s handled 800 million calls. “We had a day with 9 billion text messages in a 24-hour period,” said Irlando. The service provider has seen video traffic increase by 49%.

“The good news is that has plateaued,” said Irlando. “Week-over-week usage has started to come down in almost all our metrics.”

RELATED: Verizon and NCTA: Network usage settles in during COVID-19 pandemic

Irlando also said the carrier’s network capacity margin – the headroom that’s available between actual usage and peak usage – has stayed the same even as actually usage has gone up during the COVID crisis. He attributed this to the company’s management of traffic, prioritizing first responders and healthcare workers. He said the headroom metrics were good even before Verizon activated the temporary spectrum from Dish Network-related entities that was authorized for use by the FCC in March.

Cox and Facebook

Kevin Hart, chief product and technology officer at Cox Communications, said over the last two months the service provider has seen a 15-20% increase in downstream traffic and up to a 40% increase in upstream traffic. And the peak traffic has moved from 9 pm on weekends to 2 pm on weekdays. Despite the changes, Cox has been able to respond effectively. “We’ve had to scramble, but we’ve been fortunate to be ahead of the curve,” said Hart, adding that the company typically builds its network 12-18 months ahead of demand. He said about 99% of Cox’s nodes in are in a healthy state. The pandemic has caused the company to quickly improve its self-install technology as well as its virtual technology to aid its installers.

Dan Rabinovitsj, VP of connectivity at Facebook, said “Infrastructure is having its moment right now because we are all really depending on this.” Facebook was a founder of the Telecom Infra Project (TIP), an organization focused on bringing internet connectivity to unserved parts of the world. Rabinovitsj indicated that the current crisis could help accelerate TIP's original mission. “A lot of the innovation by TIP members is focused on taking advantage of what the webscale companies have brought to data centers,” he said. “That whole change has still taken a lot of time for operators to adopt. Accelerating that is a way to rapidly increase the pace of innovation.”