AT&T needs more state wins ‘before declaring FirstNet a success’

Firefighters public safety firstnet AT&T (FirstNet)
The next few months will be critical for FirstNet, according to one industry veteran.

AT&T and FirstNet need more backing from big states before the effort can be considered a success, according to at least one infrastructure veteran.

FirstNet said this morning that 20 states and territories have opted in to use the dedicated nationwide network it’s building for first responders. Arizona, Michigan, New Jersey and Virginia are among the states that have verbally committed to FirstNet, and Puerto Rico joined that list this week.

But competition to provide wireless services to first responders is increasing: Rivada Networks is also fighting for a piece of the market and is responding to states that issue RFPs seeking vendors willing to build and maintain a statewide public safety radio access network that would be interoperable with FirstNet’s service. And Verizon is also pursuing the market in a big way, vowing recently to build and operate its own “private network core” that will operate separately from its commercial core but will enable emergency workers to access its LTE network.

As those threats loom, AT&T and FirstNet will need to bag more state customers to be deemed triumphant, according to Ken Schmidt, president of Steel in the Air, which brokers lease deals for cell towers. And the size of some of those states will be key.

“Noticeably, many of the larger, more populous states have not signed up yet, and AT&T needs additional state-level ‘wins’ before declaring FirstNet a success,” Schmidt wrote in a LinkedIn post. “The deadline for opt-in/opt-out decision(s) by states is the middle of December, so we see a key indicator of FirstNet activity being large-state adoption in late Q3 and Q4.”

Schmidt also said his company’s checks indicate “there has not been any substantive activity on the deployment front.” FirstNet appears not to have entered into lease amendments for equipment modifications, he wrote, and no public tower companies or gear manufacturers have reported guidance regarding FirstNet.

The U.S. Department of Commerce earlier this year granted AT&T the right to build the nation’s first network dedicated to first responders. States have a legal right to opt out of FirstNet’s service, but if they choose another service provider, the network must be interoperable with FirstNet’s offering.

Verizon last month urged the FCC to tell states that FirstNet isn’t their only option for a wireless network for public safety workers. Specifically, Verizon is asking the FCC to clarify that states may deploy a network core other than FirstNet’s, and to confirm that an “interoperability review of any state alternative plan will not be limited to a state RAN (radio access network) that interconnects directly with the network core” developed by FirstNet.

AT&T’s win of the FirstNet contract gives it a powerful weapon in the battle to serve the wireless needs of first responders, but the clock is ticking for it to lock up more major state customers. Tower companies are sure to be watching the space closely in the coming weeks as they try to determine which provider is best positioned to win the war.