AT&T expedites cell tower deployment to support COVID-19 medical facility

The FCC also granted the New York Fire Department temporary access to additional T-Band spectrum. (Getty Images)

In another step to ensure communications connectivity amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the FCC on Friday helped AT&T rapidly deploy two new cell sites to provide wireless service at a COVID-19 medical facility under construction.

The agency’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau authorized AT&T’s request to expedite environmental review of two proposed wireless tower sites. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is building the medical site at the Wisconsin State Fair Park in Milwaukee to care for COVID-19 patients. 

The two new tower sites are also part of AT&T’s FirstNet public safety network, which supports first responders across the country.

“It’s vital that we keep people connected during this pandemic. That includes those working at and, sadly, being cared for in medical facilities like this one,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in a statement. “I’m grateful to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for its remarkable work, to AT&T for finding ways to meet this important need for connectivity, and, of course, all those working in health care facilities across our country during this time of dire need.”

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In a Friday update on its COVID-19 response, AT&T said its expanded circuit bandwidth to support a 5-times increase in Virtual Private Networking (VPN) capabilities among USACE while they manage logistics. The carrier said USACE’s usage of the FirstNet communications platform is also expanding daily while the group’s COVID-19-related workload continues to increase.

As of Thursday, AT&T said its FirstNet Network had 18 portable cell sites in operation and the carrier had deployment more than 41 portable assets during the COVID-19 response to boost coverage for FirstNet public safety customers.

The FCC also took additional steps Friday to support communication needs of first responders in New York, the region hardest-hit by the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. The commission granted Special Temporary Authority for the New York Fire Department’s communications system to expand capacity and coverage using additional T-Band spectrum. This is meant to bolster emergency medical dispatch operations during the crisis.

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“During this national crisis, public safety communications—including the ability to dispatch first responders using emergency radios—are more critical than ever,” said Pai in a statement. “This additional spectrum access will help ensure that New York’s emergency communications networks do not become overwhelmed and can continue to work smoothly. We are granting use of additional frequencies to help New York City’s heroic first responders carry out their life-saving work.”

Over the last month the FCC has granted similar permission to U.S. wireless carriers, authorizing AT&T, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular and Verizon to each temporarily tap additional spectrum resources to ensure mobile networks continue to handle any potential increased demand.