FirstNet gets first test in Boston

AT&T put waterproof FirstNet radios into the hands of first responders at the rainy Boston Marathon this year. It was the first high-profile test for the carrier's public safety network, which AT&T says has already won the business of more than 600 agencies across the country. 


Brookline police officer Scott Willis said in a statement that the FirstNet devices were easy for his officers to use without a lot of training, and that FirstNet gives his team the much-needed ability to segment wireless traffic.


"We're able to use our radio frequency over the device, we have talk groups for public safety, for fire ... so chatter that you don't really need to be over the main frequency flows over to these other groups so the channel doesn't stay congested, and we just have basically the traffic that we need flowing over the main radio," Willis said. 


It has been five years since two homemade bombs killed three people at the Boston Marathon. Hundreds more were injured that day, and first responders were handicapped that day by lack of communication as overloaded cellular networks stopped working. FirstNet gives police, fire and EMS workers a dedicated channel during emergencies.


"The FirstNet network also is open for FirstNet-ready and FirstNet-capable devices," AT&T CFO John Stephens said during the company's most recent earnings call. "These devices support all AT&T commercial LTE bands and the FirstNet Band 14 and meet band priority selection technical requirements. So far, nearly 650 agencies across 48 states and territories are already subscribing to FirstNet services."  


AT&T has built a separate core network for FirstNet, using dedicated hardware to carry public safety network traffic. The next steps are adding Band 14 radios to cell towers (AT&T says it will get to about one-third of its towers this year) and getting tiny FirstNet radios into smartphones so that first responders will not always need a separate device to access the network.


Samsung recently said its Galaxy S9 and S9+ will support FirstNet, and AT&T said it is pushing more manufacturers to support Band 14. The carrier walks a delicate line here because there is a robust market for handheld public safety radios which could start to deteriorate if more smartphones can start to serve this purpose.  


In Boston, police chief Willis said the devices issued to his teams were "weatherproof, waterproof and drop-proof," and that the applications were easy for the officers to learn and use. The devices look a lot like smartphones, but the buttons are bigger and the suite of applications is streamlined to focus on mission-critical tasks. 



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