AT&T secured an agreement with the U.S. Air Force to deliver FirstNet service on 15 bases.
Under the deal with the Air Force Civil Engineer Center, FirstNet service is provided for 21 years – which is the remaining term of AT&T’s 25-year public-private partnership with FirstNet Authority.
It involves deploying new infrastructure for the first 15 sites selected to use FirstNet, with installments taking place after the carrier has a signed lease with the base installation commander, according to Lance Spencer, client EVP – Defense, AT&T Public Sector and FirstNet.
"The services are expected to help mitigate existing gaps in coverage on these bases," Spencer told Fierce. "Our team of Radio Access Network (RAN) wireless engineers have completed initial designs at all 15 locations to ensure optimized base wide coverage."
In addition to the dedicated FirstNet network and service, U.S. Air Force bases will have access to the fleet of deployable assets, including more than 100 land-based and airborne portable cell sites stationed throughout the U.S.
AT&T said adopting FirstNet at the bases is the initial step as the Air Force invests to improve network coverage and considers expanding access to others. According to Spencer, "AT&T has a phased plan in place to upgrade and install FirstNet and 5G infrastructure on all Air Force and Space Force bases." The effort will deliver access to FirstNet and fill existing cellular coverage gaps that exist on most military installations, he noted.
AT&T has been building out the dedicated public safety network, which comes with Band 14 spectrum alongside priority and pre-emption for first responders and public safety users. FirstNet users also get access to AT&T’s commercial LTE spectrum. The networks covers about 2.71 million square miles and features a dedicated core that was upgraded to 5G. While progress is around 90% complete, the carrier has said it will likely take until 2023 to fully finish the network deployment.
FirstNet is interoperable so on- and off-base public safety users can communicate when working together to respond or prevent events that are a threat to U.S. airmen or the general public, the carrier noted. It also works with existing land mobile radio assets. Another benefit AT&T called out for the Air Force base users is tower-to-core encryption so that traffic can be automatically secured as it travels through the different portions of the network.
AT&T has seen traction with FirstNet, now counting over 17,000 agencies across local, state and federal signed on and more than 2.5 million connections. Spencer said AT&T couldn't disclose FirstNet subscriber numbers related to the Air Force agreement at this time.
Still, FirstNet has been a big push into the public safety sector that rival Verizon historically led. T-Mobile has also made a play for public safety with a first responder initiative called Connecting Heroes and recently added preemption as a feature of its 10-year commitment to offer free service and 5G access.
Verizon has its own deals with the U.S. Air Force, including to deliver 5G service at seven installations – for a total of 17 bases when combined with earlier wins.
AT&T also secured FirstNet agreements with other branches of the military, including a 2020 deal to deliver nearly 3,200 lines for U.S. Army public safety personnel and FirstNet service across 72 installations. That deal was somewhat different than the newly announced Air Force agreement, according to Spencer, as the Army also mandated that all Army first responders would use FirstNet devices to accomplish their mission, while the Air Force doesn't have a similar ender-user device-specific policy in place. In the public sector the FBI last year picked AT&T as its new mobility provider (switching from Verizon) under a $92 million FirstNet contract. The U.S. Navy, meanwhile, is performing 5G-focused experiments and tapping the carrier’s millimeter wave spectrum.
In addition to the dedicated Band 14 LTE spectrum, AT&T has opened access for FirstNet to its sub-6 GHz 5G in select cities and service using millimeter wave spectrum, the latter branded 5G+.
“We aim to be the network provider of choice as the Air Force moves more deliberately toward consuming advanced communications capabilities,” said Spencer in a statement. “It’s an honor to deliver FirstNet to support base personnel and first responders to help ensure the safety of each base and its surrounding community.”