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Initial Reports Are Positive as FirstNet Buildout Continues

For adopters of the nationwide first responders network in Brazos County, Texas, the benefits of the enhanced communications tools are already evident.

With FirstNet on track to complete its core network on schedule this quarter, the dedicated, nationwide first responder platform is seeing a markedly positive response from local agencies that, like the states and territories that unanimously opted in, are making their own affirmative choices.

Doug Clark, AT&T assistant vice president for FirstNet state outreach and consultation, declined to cite specific numbers but characterized participation as “enthusiastic,” with “lots” of agencies joining and “significant interest.”

One such agency is the Brazos County Sheriff’s Office, a far-flung jurisdiction in eastern central Texas that’s more than half the size of Rhode Island. It had prior, positive experience with the network, having participated in a FirstNet test node at Texas A&M University, which boosted its technology deployments — then became the first agency in the state to join FirstNet. The state joined FirstNet in September.

Brazos County Sheriff Chris Kirk said opting in, a decision announced Jan. 25, dramatically increased the agency’s coverage and enabled it to utilize a single carrier rather than switching from one network to another. County firefighters and emergency medical services (EMS) have not yet joined FirstNet, but Kirk said it’s more likely they may now that “things are in place.”

The First Responder Network Authority of the United States, as FirstNet is officially known, said in October it would complete its core network in March 2018, with a complete buildout of network infrastructure around 2020.

Clark said “everything’s in lockstep” with previous projections, and that Band Class 14 capabilities — a radio spectrum area in the 700 MHz band dedicated to public safety — should become a reality for FirstNet with that core buildout.

But the assistant vice president noted that the network also leverages multiple spectrum bands, and enables larger goals of helping save lives and reduce response times by enhancing the situational awareness of law enforcement, emergency medical technicians and firefighters in real time.

“We’ll see coverage expand,” Clark said. “What AT&T has done is, we’ve really accelerated the buildout of this national public safety broadband network by giving first responders access to AT&T’s existing spectrum, and then also building out their spectrum, the Band Class 14 spectrum, to provide propagation and coverage.”

Two differing classifications distinguish FirstNet members, Clark said. Primary subscribers include firefighters, EMS, law enforcement, public safety answering point personnel and emergency management agencies, while extended primary subscribers include “supportive agencies” like health care, transportation and utilities.

Brazos County, roughly equidistant between Austin and Houston — and home to more than 200,000 residents in 591 square miles — is a primary subscriber that has already benefited greatly from an association with FirstNet, its sheriff said.

The agency began utilizing bandwidth from the Texas A&M test node in 2016 and was provided with modems for its 61 patrol vehicles. That by itself represented a huge leap forward, as the agency, which has 253 paid staff and 102 sworn deputies, was able to greatly improve the information flow to and from the field via in-vehicle, high-speed Internet.

During a recent tornado, a flood and an armed stand-off, deputies were able to park vehicles with front- and rear-facing cameras at key locations, then livestream video back to command — protecting their own lives and informing a better use of resources.

Faster Internet connections let deputies write reports and log evidence in the field, and get real-time information on everything from license plate checks to federal and state criminal backgrounds. They also power more than 800 IT-based security system cameras to stream live from the courthouse, jail and administrative building to the command center or even patrol vehicles.

“They’re directly connected to dispatch, the calls streamed directly into their cars, and they’ve cut down on radio traffic, even. Now, they’re actually spending more time in their patrol zones. It’s an assurance to our community and it’s a deterrent to criminals,” Kirk said.

Transitioning from the node to AT&T brought new aircards — though the agency intends to update with modems at a later time — and increased its coverage from around 60 percent on the node to around 100 percent.

“It was conceptual before, basically, but it’s all real now. We don’t have to switch back and forth from the node to a public carrier anymore,” Kirk said, adding that the department, like others that have joined, is able to utilize priority and pre-emption capabilities.

Going forward, Clark said AT&T will build the network, which he described as “purpose-built,” founded on singular qualities like priority and pre-emption, and on many thousands of sites across rural America that have become part of FirstNet.

“This footprint hasn’t existed before, nationally, with priority and pre-emption, ever,” Clark said.

Theo Douglas is assistant managing editor for Industry Insider — California, and before that was 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.