AT&T to build US’s FirstNet in 25-year government deal

Alan Burkitt-Gray
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Nearly 16 years after 9/11, US finally awards contract for joined-up emergency services

It took a long time, but the US government finally confirmed that AT&T is to build and operate FirstNet, a nationwide LTE emergency services network for the US.

Winners, apart from AT&T, which gets $46.5 billion for the 25-year contract, are AT&T’s vendors, including Motorola Solutions, General Dynamics, Sapient Consulting and Inmarsat Government, the public-sector side of the London-based satellite operator.

The network will cover all 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia and other US territories, and enable firefighters, police officers, paramedics and other first responders to communicate with one another. The need for such a network was identified in 2001 after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. The surprise is that it took nearly 16 years to define the criteria and appoint a contractor. 

“When terrorism struck our shores the flaws in national security were exposed,” said commerce secretary Wilbur Ross at the official signing of the contract with Randall Stephenson, chairman and CEO of AT&T. “We wanted to ensure such lapses did not occur again.” FirstNet will be “a dedicated public sector broadband network that equips first responders with the technology”. 

AT&T said it was a bidder for the contract early in 2016. The only other two known bidders were an operator of a push-to-talk handheld radio network, pdvWireless, which was excluded from the process in late 2016, and Rivada Mercury, a joint venture between Irish company Rivada Networks with a number of vendors, including Nokia. Rivada Mercury was finally excluded in March 2017, when it lost a court appeal. 

The FirstNet team “ran a detailed and transparent bidding process”, Stephenson said at the signing ceremony. He said “all of us at AT&T, we really are honoured” to be awarded what he called “this unprecedented public-private partnership”. 

He said that “beginning this fall”, AT&T would “spend $40 billion to build and create this network”. It will use 20MHz of spectrum in the 700MHz band. 

AT&T has not said whether the spectrum will be exclusively used for FirstNet. Rivada’s scheme was that a system of dynamic spectrum management would allow it to sell capacity on the wholesale market to other operators when not needed by emergency services in each area. But that technology remains so far untested. 

AT&T provided a partial breakdown of the costings. “FirstNet will provide 20MHz of high-value, telecommunications spectrum and success-based payments of $6.5 billion over the next five years to support the network buildout,” said the company, adding: “FirstNet’s funding was raised from previous FCC spectrum auctions.” 

Then AT&T will spend “about $40 billion over the life of the contract to build, deploy, operate and maintain the network, with a focus on ensuring robust coverage for public safety users.” In addition, AT&T will use its own network assets. 

No one has satisfactorily explained why AT&T was the only bidder from any of the major mobile operators within the US. CenturyLink and Verizon never announced that they had bid; nor did Sprint or T-Mobile US. 

Nor was any explanation given for the exclusion of the little-known pdvWireless or of Rivada Mercury, run by Irish businessman Declan Ganley.

Kay Kapoor, president of AT&T Global Public Sector, said: “FirstNet is unprecedented in its vision, scope and importance to our nation and the future of public safety communications. We’re honoured to be selected for this historic and critical initiative.” She has led AT&T government services business for the past four years. Earlier in her career she spent 20 years in the civil government unit of Lockheed Martin, which is mainly a defence contractor. 

Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, said at the signing ceremony: “The first task of any government, any nation, is to keep its people safe.” However a police chief, Tom Manger, representing some of the largest police departments in the US, warned: “We haven’t built it yet. We need to collaborate to achieve the vision.”