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AT&T selected to build nationwide public safety network

The high-speed network aims to equip firefighters, EMS and police with a single network that allows real-time communication during crises

By Melissa Repko
The Dallas Morning News

DALLAS — Dallas-based AT&T has been hired by the U.S. Department of Commerce to build and manage a nationwide broadband network for public safety communication between first responders.

The high-speed network aims to equip police, firefighters and emergency medical services with a single network that allows real-time communicate during crises, such as natural disasters. It will cover all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and five U.S. territories.

AT&T was awarded a 25-year contract from FirstNet, which will pay AT&T up to $6.5 billion over the next five years. AT&T will also receive 20 megahertz of telecommunications spectrum from the government to deploy for the dedicated public safety network.

FirstNet, or the First Responder Network Authority, is an independent authority within the U.S. Department of Commerce. The project was inspired by the communications challenges that first responders faced on Sept. 11, 2001. The 9/11 Commission recommended a dedicated public safety broadband network.

FirstNet was created as part of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012. Last year, the government raised the $6.5 billion through a spectrum auction.

FirstNet CEO Mike Poth said the project was pushed forward by public safety officials who struggle with outdated technology and congested networks. They also use thousands of different voice communications systems that do not operate with one another.

“Every single day, every single week man-made disasters continue,” he said. “The need for public safety to have better tools and technology at their hands to help quicken response and more effective response is what’s really driving this. ... Our 14-year-old kids have better technology than our first responders in their hands.”

John Stephens, AT&T’s chief financial officer, said the telecom company looks forward to building a high-quality network for police, firefighters and medical teams.

“It’s a great opportunity to serve every citizen,” Stephens said. “Everybody is going to benefit from this because that is who the first responders serve.”

The network buildout will begin later this year. It is expected to create 10,000 jobs in the U.S., as AT&T builds new cell phone towers, maintains the network and helps service customers, he said.

Stephens said AT&T will invest $40 billion to build the broadband network. Once the network is completed, states and public agencies will pay AT&T to use the service.

While the dedicated network is under construction, Stephens said AT&T is working on technology that gives priority to first responders who use the current network during an emergency. It will be available by the end of 2017, he said.

For first responders, the announcement is long-awaited news, said Darrel Stephens, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association. The Washington, D.C.-based law enforcement association counts Dallas, Fort Worth and Arlington among its members. It has advocated for the network’s creation for more than a decade.

“It’s been frustrating,” he said. “We would have liked to see it happen sooner, but the magnitude of the vision causes the difficulty of making it happen quickly.”

He said police departments routinely use workarounds to communicate with one another, especially during major incidents like floods or tornadoes. He said the network will also give law enforcement the bandwidth to share videos in real time.

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