AT&T scored a major win for FirstNet, landing a contract valued at around $92 million to provide FirstNet mobility services for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
The five-year deal is basically all new business for AT&T, according to Stacy Schwartz, VP of FirstNet Program at AT&T, and represents the largest commitment to FirstNet by a law enforcement or public safety agency to date.
“We’re extremely proud to be supporting a preeminent law enforcement agency like the FBI, we take a great deal of pride in working with them,” Schwartz told FierceWireless, adding that it’s a big accomplishment for AT&T and FirstNet.
Notably, the FBI is changing from its current provider (and AT&T rival) Verizon, after using the carrier for a number of years, according to Schwartz.
Verizon historically dominated the public safety sector, but AT&T has been challenging that since winning the contract for and building out the FirstNet dedicated public safety communications platform, in public-private partnership with FirstNet Authority.
That includes adding Band 14 spectrum, and a discrete LTE core, which is in the process of upgrading to 5G.
Other DoJ agencies can tap FirstNet under FBI contract
Under the new contract, the FBI will use FirstNet to communicate and connect nationwide both for day-to-day and emergency operations.
That includes all local offices. The FBI has 56 field offices or divisions, across major U.S. markets, and within those about 380 resident agencies located in smaller cities and towns. The agency plans to use FirstNet Ready devices like smartphones, air cards, and modems.
The FBI already had some users on FirstNet, Schwartz said, and FirstNet previously helped support the agency during certain special events where there was a critical emphasis on public safety.
Given the sensitive nature of the FBI’s work as a federal law enforcement agency, Schwartz couldn’t disclose the number of connections or users being added to the FirstNet platform through the award.
A separate aspect she called out as key is that certain other Department of Justice (DoJ) agencies can access the contract as well, allowing them to opt for FirstNet services.
Those include the Antitrust Division; Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA); Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys; Justice Management Division; U.S. Attorneys; U.S. Marshals Service; and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), among others.
Some have already been using FirstNet, including the ATF, which was the first federal agency to adopt FirstNet in 2018 with about 4,800 users.
Interoperability at all levels
As AT&T looks to expand its public sector presence and the adoption of FirstNet, Schwartz indicated that getting the FBI to sign on bolsters the platform’s credibility to agencies and law enforcement at all levels, and speaks to the aim of the initiative for a ubiquitous platform for public safety.
At the end of September 2020, FirstNet had more than 14,000 public safety agencies and organizations subscribed, representing more than 1.7 million FirstNet connections.
In October, the U.S. Army subscribed to FirstNet with almost 3,200 lines and more than 3,000 FirstNet capable devices.
“From a FirstNet perspective we really take a look at how, and where, and who is adopting FirstNet because it’s important for local law enforcement to understand that the FBI is using FirstNet, it’s important for other DoJ agencies” and other federal law enforcement, Schwartz said. “And it’s important for the FBI to know there’s such widespread adoption.”
Large-scale implementation goes to one of key principals of the platform, born after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, with the concept of the need for greater situational awareness and interoperability to communicate both within and between different departments.
For law enforcement within the DoJ, they could potentially use FirstNet applications like push-to-talk, making it easier for groups of users or performing the same function to talk to one another, Schwartz said.
Verizon, separately, started offering push-to-talk (PTT) service including Mission Critical PTT October. The carrier said it wasn’t in response to FirstNet, but rather something public safety has been asking for and what 3GPP specs enabled.
Getting more agencies signed on to FirstNet also helps and makes that interdepartmental coordination easier between various levels of government.
“There is a great deal of collaboration and cooperation among law enforcement agencies, not just at the federal jurisdiction, but also at the federal, state, local, and tribal,” Schwartz said. “Having more users on the FirstNet platform that allows for collaboration and interoperability is really in effect helping realize the vision of what FirstNet should be.”
Preemption and a discrete core
In the context of the FBI and leveraging FirstNet, preemption is a key capability that the FirstNet Authority required the service provider be able to deliver across the network.
Schwartz cited the terror event at the Boston Marathon in 2013 as a scenario where the need for the capability became clear.
“What law enforcement and many realized in the context of that event, is that in these times, when people are trying to communicate, they don’t just communicate by voice, people exchange a lot of data,” Schwartz said, as many people were texting and sending videos and photos, leading to congestion in the network.
In an extreme instance like the Boston Marathon bombing, preemption ensures that the FBI’s traffic, along with other FirstNet users gets ahead of average citizen users, so they can communicate in the moment. That’s critical, Schwartz noted, and her view “the absolute epitome of what the FBI would need in that sort of situation.”
Likely key for law enforcement agencies and the FBI is security, and a unique aspect of FirstNet is its discrete or separate core. All traffic is also encrypted.
On top of that, whether it’s the FBI or any other agency that has its own unique levels of security or authentication “we then overlay any kind of custom requirements the FBI would have on top of the already secure nature of the FirstNet network,” Schwartz said.
Over the summer AT&T executives said that the carrier’s independent testing showed FirstNet is significantly faster than AT&T’s own core network and that of any other commercial network because of the dedicated platform and spectrum.