Dedicated Public Safety Networks: Driving Device Evolution, Blurring Market Lines

The two new dedicated networks for first responders from FirstNet and Verizon may more closely connect government and commercial markets, and push innovation out to residents’ smartphones.

by / June 19, 2018
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Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) are still getting to know two new dedicated networks for first responders, but early indications are that the two systems from FirstNet and Verizon may drive device innovation from the public to the commercial sector, and more closely connect the two.

The First Responder Network Authority of the United States (FirstNet), and a distinct network for public safety officials and first responders from Verizon, went live during the year’s first quarter — FirstNet with a controlled introduction on March 27; Verizon with a general availability on March 29.

Both offer priority service to first responders during disasters and major events; and pre-emption to back that up. And in interviews with Government Technology, representatives of both companies and an OEM said they believe the goals and standards underpinning both networks will improve the quality of smartphones available to the general public while raising awareness of the first responder market and more tightly linking both.

“Table stakes” for FirstNet include offering so-called Band 14, a spectrum band exclusively for first responders in times of crisis but available to residents when not in demand by public agencies. Only “a handful” of devices targeting FirstNet members are currently Band 14-enabled, but all such devices are screened through FirstNet and AT&T certification processes, Scott Agnew, assistant vice president of product marketing for the public sector, told GT. FirstNet certification requires that a device pass around 3,500 tests in addition to its normal AT&T public process, Agnew said, and devices also need “the appropriate” FirstNet firmware to accept the dedicated SIM card.

“My expectation is, the device ecosystem is going to grow,” Agnew said, describing the advent of FirstNet as changing the game by empowering the creation of lower-cost, more capable devices for both first responders and the public. “I’m really excited what the future holds for the entire network because it not only benefits first responders, it benefits all AT&T customers,” he added.

While Verizon’s network is “virtually segmented from all commercial traffic,” the company didn’t want to limit first responders to “a certain spectrum class,” Nicholas Nilan, the company’s director of product development for the public sector, said, noting it offers public-sector access to “the entire scope” of its network, with the enhancements of priority and pre-emption.

First responders are on-boarded via a provision made in their accounts, Nilan said, and devices undergo their own rigorous testing to ensure network connectivity and crisis-level functionality without service loss. The company supports its entire device portfolio for first responders.

“What we want is to lift all boats in the device ecosystem to be able to support public safety. And as new requirements come out, we’ll continue to adjust our on-boarding procedures for all OEMs,” Nilan said. Both companies are also working to incorporate U.S. Military Standard 810G, which holds OEMs to extreme working condition and water submersion survivability benchmarks, in their own certifications.

In creating the recently released LG V35 ThinQ, a FirstNet-ready smartphone, to meet these standards, Yasser Nafei, senior vice president at LG Electronics, said the company has seen the lines blur between public and commercial markets.

“The thinking process behind this product was, ‘How can we really make sure that the first responder is like any ordinary consumer,” said Nafei, indicating the V35 ThinQ’s less than six-ounce weight, “super-bright” camera mode and voice response capabilities should let first responders carry just one phone in their professional and personal lives.

“We believe that there is no distinction any more between a traditional consumer and, really, a first responder. They are one entity for us,” Nafei said.

All 50 states and six territories opted in to FirstNet late last year; but for both networks, actual public safety agency participation is voluntary. Neither telecommunications executive would reveal the extent to which agencies have joined their respective networks, but both said numbers were strong.

“While we won’t comment specifically on subscribers, the demand has been national and we’re seeing tremendous participation from public safety,” Agnew said, indicating the company heard from local representatives during its dialogue last year with representatives of the states and territories.

In Orem, Utah, a city of nearly 100,000 that’s about 40 miles south of Salt Lake City, police, fire and emergency medical services recently joined FirstNet. The city’s Police Chief Gary Giles said his department had left AT&T for a cheaper carrier, but decided to return when officials realized coverage was less universal and data more expensive.

“We live in a valley. With our last carrier, the minute we went up into the canyon at all, we lost coverage altogether. With us, the coverage that AT&T provides is a lot more important than a little bit of money because, in all reality, when an emergency happens, we need that coverage. We can’t play around. Lives are at stake,” said Giles, one of the Utah Valley police chiefs who signed a letter to Gov. Gary Herbert recommending the state join FirstNet.

“I think as people get signed up on FirstNet and it progresses forward, I think we’re going to start seeing a lot more apps being developed for certain departments that, if we can share them, why go back and reinvent the wheel?” Giles added.

The nascent opportunity present in his company’s first responder network is immense, the Verizon executive said, and may reveal new directions.

“Building out this public safety core, offering priority and pre-emption and just the general movement of technology upwards for public safety, the amount of attention that has been brought to this community is really starting to change the conversation of ‘What else can I do with that network, now it’s available to me,’” Nilan said.

Theo Douglas Staff Writer

Theo Douglas is a staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes covering municipal, county and state governments, business and breaking news. He has a Bachelor's degree in Newspaper Journalism and a Master's in History, both from California State University, Long Beach.