Both Verizon and AT&T revealed some specifics about their first responder subscribers this week.
AT&T EVP Chris Sambar said in a blog post that as of July 2022, its FirstNet network had 3.7 million connections serving more than 21,800 police and fire departments and other agencies and organizations dedicated to public safety. AT&T won the contract to build FirstNet in 2017, and it’s been building the network ever since. Last summer, AT&T said the network was 90% complete.
Maggie Hallbach, senior vice president of Verizon Public Sector, told Fierce this week that Verizon Frontline has 5.1 million connected devices and more than 30,000 public safety agency customers. Verizon Frontline was first announced in March 2021, but Verizon has had a first responder business for decades.
Neither AT&T nor Verizon have publicly disclosed how much of their first responder business is voice versus data. This is relevant because voice is more lucrative than data.
Hallbach said, “We do have situations where we have all of the mobile broadband and all of the smartphones; we have situations where we have only mobile broadband, and the competition may have the smartphones; and the opposite is sometimes true.”
Verizon defends its public safety business
Earlier this week, Fierce reported that AT&T was adding about 300,000 FirstNet customers every quarter. Recon Analytics analyst Roger Entner suggested these new AT&T customers must be switching from Verizon because where else would they be coming from?
But Hallbach pushed back against that assertion. Although she wouldn’t reveal how many subscribers Frontline is adding on a quarterly basis, she said it’s on a growth trajectory. She added, “I think we continue to have about a 2-times lead over AT&T FirstNet from a market share perspective.”
If both AT&T and Verizon say they’re growing first responder subscribers every quarter, where are those subs coming from?
Hallbach said one reason why the total first responder market is growing is possibly because AT&T defines “first responder” much more widely than Verizon.
She explained that both carriers classify first responders via the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS). Verizon uses only 18 NAICS codes to determine if a subscriber qualifies as a first responder for its Frontline program. But Verizon claims AT&T uses over 100 NAICS codes. AT&T did not immediately verify this number to Fierce.
Why doesn’t Verizon simply expand its NAICS pool to put it on the same footing as AT&T?
Hallbach said, “Our designation is based on a lot of feedback from our first responder community. To a public safety entity, it’s troubling that a tree service or a media outlet might get the same level of priority or preemption as a chief of police. That’s a little alarming. FirstNet was supposed to be the broadband network for public safety. Now, tangential industries are being classified as the same for public safety.”
In addition to the discrepancy in the use of NAICS identifiers, which may be expanding the total first responder market, Hallbach said there are also more devices being connected than just smartphones.
She cited devices such as mobile data terminals in police cruisers and sensors in ambulances and fire trucks. “The use cases are extensive,” she said. “We’re seeing a lot of organic growth in public safety.”
AT&T’s Sambar said something similar in his blog. “First responders are also adapting innovative ways to improve communications. Examples include connected body cams and fleets, surveillance, and interoperable push-to-talk communications. As 5G comes further into play with FirstNet, so too will new innovations to take advantage of the increase in bandwidth.”
There was some question whether carriers double count first responders who have a work device as well as a personal device. Hallbach said Verizon does not count the personal device as a Frontline subscriber.
She said many first responder agencies want their employees to have a dedicated agency device. It’s important for their records-retention requirements. They may have to turn over the devices to law enforcement in the event of an investigation, for example. “Most of them do not want to transact personal business on an agency device,” she said. Verizon’s consumer organization does have discount programs for military and first responders. But those subscribers aren’t counted as part of Frontline.
Finally, Hallbach also threw out one other possibility for where AT&T might be getting some of its quarterly additional subscribers.
“I think we have to remember that Sprint bought Nextel, and Nextel had a very large public safety base; T-Mobile inherited Sprint,” she said. “My question would be 'why is there the perception that Verizon ever had 100% market share?'”
However, Sprint bought Nextel a long time ago — in 2005. There is nothing in Sprint’s final Annual Report from 2019 about first responders or public safety. And T-Mobile only created its Connecting Heroes program in May 2020.
T-Mobile did not respond to a request asking how many subscribers it has for Connecting Heroes.
Mobile Ecosystem analyst Mark Lowenstein said, “T-Mobile has never had a significant first responder/public sector business. Sprint did have some first responder business, particularly the legacy Nextel customers from the PTT era. So, yes, it could well be that AT&T is gaining some customers from Sprint. The 3G sunsetting has also had an impact, causing a disproportionate amount of switching in the past couple of quarters.”