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Penn State Putting All First Responders on FirstNet

Pennsylvania State University is expanding its use of FirstNet, AT&T's dedicated telecommunications network for first responders, to include all its police officers and key personnel across several campuses.

Every second counts when responding to an emergency — making network congestion a major obstacle for public safety agencies across the U.S. Given the crowds it sees at football games and other events, Pennsylvania State University is expanding its use of FirstNet, the communications network developed by AT&T specifically to accommodate first responders and public safety agencies.

According to a recent announcement, Penn State University Police and Public Safety (UPPS) has committed to connecting all its officers and key personnel to FirstNet. Now in its fourth year, the service is marketed to agencies across the U.S. looking for an interoperable network free of interference and congestion, with the goal of improving communications, data exchanges and response times.

According to the announcement, Penn State's public safety officials are using FirstNet on tablets and department-issued phones that can communicate with two-way radios via a new "Enhanced Push-to-Talk" function.

Paul Edwards, IT lead for Penn UPPS, said the university started testing FirstNet in the spring and fall of 2019 with about 20 to 25 tablets and cellphones for department personnel. The rollout is ongoing, with about 59 FirstNet devices now operating at Penn State’s Abington, Altoona, Behrend, Berks, Greater Allegheny, Harrisburg and University Park campuses.

Edwards said FirstNet proved useful during the 2019 Penn football season, when home games drew thousands of spectators and jammed cellular networks.

“The biggest challenge was phone communications during home football games. With more than 100,000 fans that gather at University Park during a typical football Saturday, traditional cellular coverage is overtaxed,” he said. “Since the FirstNet devices connect to a dedicated network, all of our FirstNet devices have high-speed and reliable connectivity during such large-scale events, which means emergency communication is uninterrupted.”

FirstNet's Assistant Vice President Doug Clark said the network can hasten a response to emergency situations by not forcing officers and other emergency staff to rely on commercial networks.

“Giving public safety a dedicated platform to communicate is important,” he said in an email to Government Technology. “It’s like giving public safety communications the ‘lights and sirens’ treatment. When you see or hear an emergency vehicle coming, you get out of the way, so they can quickly get to those in need. Priority and preemption follow that same approach, just on the communications highway.”

According to AT&T, a team of former first responders guides the deployment of FirstNet assets and infrastructure based on the need of public safety agencies, in accordance with Department of Homeland Security National Incident Management System guidelines.

"It feels like a normal cellular deployment; however, when there is a critical communications need, the network provides for high availability," Clark said. "Unlike commercial offerings in the marketplace, FirstNet is built to operate without dialing any special numbers or requiring IT staff to implement a special configuration."

For Penn State, Edwards said the service doesn’t require additional staffing and makes use of existing AT&T infrastructure, which made for a relatively seamless and cost-effective transition.

“There was no actual adoption cost, because the money we were paying for cell services moved from a traditional AT&T/Verizon account to a FirstNet account,” Edwards said, adding that FirstNet’s costs are comparable to other cell service fees. “Other than some of the add-on services, there are no additional fees to use the FirstNet service.”

Edwards said the service's BAND 14 spectrum ensures clear channels of communication in case a fan experiences a cardiac event and requires immediate medical attention, or a child gets separated from their parents, or a suspicious package requires further examination.

FirstNet witnessed a 67 percent jump in subscribers in 2020, and it added about 110 devices, 60 applications and 100,000 square miles of coverage to its service, according to numbers from AT&T released earlier this year.

An email from the company said Penn State is the only university to publicly announce its use of the service to date. AT&T said others have signed on, but it declined to name them or say how many.
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.