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

Ambulance
First responders in parts of 38 cities and more than 20 venues will get access to the AT&T mmWave (5G+) spectrum this month. (Getty Images)

First responders using the FirstNet network, which is provided by AT&T, will get access to AT&T’s 5G millimeter wave (mmWave) network starting this month.

AT&T calls this service “5G+,” meaning users get higher speeds than the 5G offered on low-band spectrum. First responders in parts of 38 cities and more than 20 venues will get access to the AT&T mmWave (5G+) spectrum this April; they also will continue to get the always-on priority and preemption across LTE – Band 14 spectrum plus all of AT&T’s commercial LTE spectrum bands. 

First responders in Houston, however, already are getting access to the mmWave spectrum. That’s not for any particular reason other than it’s a routine part of any FirstNet deployment that the service is thoroughly tested and vetted before launch. It just so happens a lot of beta users were in Houston, according to Scott Agnew, assistant vice president, product marketing, FirstNet Program at AT&T.

New security measures

AT&T believes its FirstNet security strategy goes “well beyond” standard commercial network security measures, and now it’s introducing a “tower-to-core” encryption-based system based on 3GPP-based open industry standards.

“That’s something that, from our knowledge, is the first of its kind in a national network to be deployed,” Agnew said, adding that it’s possible some smaller private 4G networks have used this, but it’s a complex and expensive path to undertake. “It’s a building block. There’s more to come.”

AT&T said it’s rolling out security upgrades on every cell tower across the country. Houston and Cleveland are the first two cities to get the upgrade this month, with nationwide completion scheduled by the first quarter of 2022.

Verification process

How does AT&T know who qualifies for this level of security?

“Unlike other carriers, we know our public safety customers, and we have policies on how to treat them,” Agnew said. For example, AT&T knows when a FirstNet customer is using 5G and when that user should be move to LTE. “It’s all about understanding who the user is,” and the network being designed for that.

There are two basic ways for getting the FirstNet service: on an agency basis or on a subscriber basis. The agency route is pretty straightforward; the agency knows they’re signing up for FirstNet and there’s an eligibility process.

For an individual, that’s more complex, i.e., how do you identify a volunteer firefighter?

FirstNet, which just turned 4 years old, has spent a lot of that time perfecting the eligibility process. It uses a third-party process to validate a user, so an individual can walk into a store and oftentimes gets verified immediately. FirstNet subscribers are assigned a dedicated SIM and rate plan.

Of course, first responders who want to take advantage of AT&T’s 5G+ need a compatible handset, which includes the Samsung Galaxy Note 5G Ultra or the Netgear Highthawk 5G Mobile Hotspot. The 5G service comes at no additional cost. 

It will take time to get more 5G devices online and to develop apps that thrive on 5G. In the meantime, Agnew noted, FirstNet’s 4G LTE network already is capable of delivering a lot, including video surveillance and the ability to send some patient information from an ambulance to a hospital emergency room. 

RELATED: AT&T says FirstNet is faster than the company’s own core network

Last summer, AT&T said it was upgrading the FirstNet network to 5G, but executives boasted that the FirstNet LTE network was already faster than any other commercial network in the United States, in part due to its dedicated spectrum.

When it comes to the introduction of some of the more whiz-band 5G applications, “we’re going to see an evolution over time,” Agnew said.