Verizon vows interoperability with AT&T's FirstNet, but feasibility questioned

Verizon plans to build its own network for first responders in a move that pits the carrier against AT&T.

Verizon continued to outline plans for its dedicated network for first responders, saying its proposed offering would be interoperable with FirstNet’s service but won’t connect with AT&T’s core network.

Whether that strategy is actually workable, though, is far from clear.

The nation’s largest mobile carrier last month vowed to build and operate its own “private core network” to serve the needs of first responders, managing and directing all communications functions such as network access and call routing. The core will operate separately from Verizon’s commercial core but will enable emergency workers to access the company’s LTE network, which covers 2.4 million square miles.

The move escalates a battle with AT&T to serve the wireless needs of emergency workers.

Verizon also said a few weeks ago that it will make priority access and preemption services available to public safety when necessary at no charge, and it outlines plans to invest in new offerings to complement existing services such as its Push-to-Talk Plus, which is interoperable with existing land mobile radio networks. The company hasn’t discussed how much money it plans to spend on the effort.

“Our planned public safety network will consist of a dedicated public safety network core operating in parallel to our commercial core–similar to AT&T’s planned FirstNet solution,” Michael Maiorana, senior vice president for Verizon Enterprise Solutions in the public sector, wrote in a LinkedIn post this week. “Under our proposed solution, our core and AT&T’s core would not connect. Instead, both companies would provide transport services that deliver traffic to FirstNet’s data centers via IP backhaul. In addition to everyday voice and data services, first responders would also have access to FirstNet applications on both networks, as well as a second network to fall back on. Having two networks will provide unrivalled nationwide coverage, redundancy and reliability.”

But while interoperability is technically feasible, it may not be workable in a practical sense, according to the industry analysis firm CritComm Insights.

"The Verizon argument assumes its peering point would be comparable to a peering point used to interconnect FirstNet's data centers to the AT&T FirstNet core network. Unfortunately, the FirstNet website suggests that a separate FirstNet data center network is not in the cards,” CritComm said in a blog post. “The site explicitly notes that ‘Applications and services and operational and business support systems also reside in the core network,’ suggesting that FirstNet data assets are potentially co-mingled in AT&T's cloud ensemble enabled by AT&T's Network 3.0 Indigo. There are no statements from FirstNet that point to an independent set of FirstNet data centers.

"Interconnecting two secure networks is not a technical issue, but a question of will,” CritComm continued. "FirstNet and its partner AT&T must see Verizon as a potent competitor that threatens FirstNet subscriber uptake and, with that, the AT&T FirstNet business model. Making it easier for Verizon to hold on to existing customers--and even gain new customers--is not in AT&T's interest.”

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.

Two weeks ago, Texas became the 21st state—and the largest so far—to opt in to FirstNet’s offering, marking a major win for FirstNet and AT&T.

Verizon urged the FCC in July to tell states that FirstNet isn’t their only option for a wireless network for first responders. the nation’s largest wireless carrier carefully positions its service as complementary to FirstNet, the company clearly views the FirstNet rollout as an opportunity to build on its momentum as a provider of wireless communications for public safety organizations.

"Networks working together to transmit voice calls and data is nothing new,” Maiorana  wrote this week. “Nor is building in multiple levels of security processes. Supporting public safety and providing reliable communications is critical to the safety of our communities.”