AT&T rips T-Mobile’s promise to first responders as ‘a marketing stunt’

FirstNet firefighter mobile
AT&T built the FirstNet network and is the only carrier allowed to use it. (FirstNet)

Last week, T-Mobile made some announcements that were either a) nice things to do for low-income families and emergency responders, or b) self-serving maneuvers to convince the attorneys general of several states to drop their lawsuit against the merger of T-Mobile and Sprint.

T-Mobile promised that if its merger with Sprint closes, the New T-Mobile would introduce low-cost prepaid wireless plans, provide free broadband access to underserved households with school-age children and provide free 5G service for first responders.

AT&T is calling T-Mobile’s promise regarding first responders a marketing ploy. In an email to FierceWireless, an AT&T spokesperson said, “We have a deep and genuine commitment to connecting first responders and using technology to enrich education, not marketing stunts contingent on getting something approved. If they believe it’s critical to offer free access to these communities they would do it today, no conditions or questions asked.”
T-Mobile has dubbed its first responders plan “Connecting Heroes.” It would be a 10-year commitment offering free 5G access with unlimited talk, text, and smartphone data to all first responders of public and non-profit state and local police, fire and EMS agencies across the country. Executives said first responders on T-Mobile’s plan will have preemption, and there will be no data caps, no throttling and no de-prioritization.

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But analyst Andrew Seybold, who writes regularly for All Things FirstNet, points out that T-Mobile would not have access to Band 14 spectrum, which is licensed to AT&T for FirstNet, and neither would T-Mobile have access to the hardened and secured core network of FirstNet.

FirstNet came about after the events of 911 and Hurricane Katrina when first responders and the general public realized that the country needed some kind of coordinated communications system for emergencies. FirstNet, which is operated by the First Responder Network Authority, allowed parties to bid on building out the dedicated first-responder’s network. But AT&T was the only major carrier that bid on the project. It has turned out to be a boon for AT&T, which is leveraging tower climbers to install FirstNet equipment and to also install 5G equipment at the same time. FirstNet was one of the few things Elliott Management congratulated the company about in its scathing letter to AT&T’s Board of Directors.

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Seybold said, “Today there is one official FirstNet network. It has its own network core, own secure dedicated lines, and everybody who operates on it as a first responder has a black SIM that puts them on the network with priority.”

The other carriers may not have wanted to work with the federal government when they decided not to bid for the FirstNet project. But now that it’s become a winner for AT&T, they may regret their earlier decision and want to find a way to participate.

AT&T makes money in two ways from FirstNet. It is allowed to charge first responders a monthly fee to access the network. Secondly, when the Band 14 spectrum is not being fully used for public safety, AT&T has the right to use the spectrum for its commercial customers, said Seybold. “This is vitally important in cities with congestion,” he said. In the 25-year contract with the First Responder Network Authority, AT&T has to give back some money from the profits it makes using Band 14 for its commercial customers.

Verizon has already tried to get in on some of the first-responder action by offering priority and preemption for first responders on its regular commercial network. T-Mobile is promising to do something similar.

“Interestingly, T-Mobile is not offering free laptop or connected device data as part of this offer,” writes Roger Entner in an Industry Voices column for FierceWireless. “For any first responder agency this would mean either to pay T-Mobile for all the data coming from laptops in police cars and medical equipment in ambulances or have a multi-carrier option with AT&T’s FirstNet or Verizon.”

So far, the information on T-Mobile’s site is pretty sparse in terms of details about its Connecting Heroes service. “I, for one, don’t take this offer as being either real or tangible,” said Seybold.

Under T-Mobile CEO John Legere, the company has certainly gained a reputation as a master marketer. But whether the New T-Mobile will be able to live up to its promises, particularly regarding first responders, is yet to be seen. Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal is reporting today that Legere is in talks with SoftBank to become the CEO of WeWork.