No connection matters more than one that could help save a life.
Today we celebrate 10 years since Congress passed legislation to establish a communications network dedicated to the nation’s first responders – now known as FirstNet, Built with AT&T. FirstNet equips first responders with always-on, 24/7 priority and preemption, as well as a range of cutting-edge apps, devices and solutions that allow them to connect to the critical information they need – every day and in every emergency – without worrying about connectivity challenges (think congestion or throttling). Giving first responders access to the leading tools that will help them do their jobs is something we can all feel good about. And in the few short years since the FirstNet Authority selected AT&T to build and operate public safety’s network, FirstNet has reached more than 3.3 million connections for over 20,500 public safety agencies and organizations across the country as of the end of 2021. We want to take a moment to reflect on this historic public-private partnership and to celebrate the progress we’ve made.
Understanding the need
The need for a communications platform for first responders first became apparent in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. One of the most devastating events in our nation’s history revealed fundamental problems with the communications systems used by America’s first responders, such as radio system limitations preventing cross-agency communication and overwhelmed wireless networks hampering key data transmissions.
“People were writing notes on pieces of paper and running them around Ground Zero and the Pentagon. You had agencies trying to cross the river to come to Manhattan and they all worked on different land-mobile-radio systems, none of which were designed to interoperate with each other.”
— Chief Jeff Johnson, former president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs
While the tragedy of 9/11 motivated the effort to get everybody in public safety on the same page, with the need for an improved public safety communications system cited in the Congressional 9/11 Commission Report, communications failures had long been an issue for first responders across the country. From spotty cellular coverage in rural areas to saturated bandwidth in the midst of wildfires and emergencies in concentrated areas, the inability to communicate cost lives.
Government takes action
A constituent group called the Public Safety Alliance approached then-U.S. Rep Peter King (R-NY), who drafted an initial bill setting aside a dedicated block of spectrum — the scarce airwaves that wireless communications travel over — for dedicated use by the public safety community. Over the years, the Alliance gained the bipartisan support of key policymakers including Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), Senator John McCain (R-AZ), Representative Bob Latta (R-OH), and then-Vice President Joe Biden, resulting in the creation and passage of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act on February 22, 2012. The law established a broadband network dedicated to the nation’s first responders and gave the FirstNet Authority the mandate to build, operate, and maintain that network.
The FirstNet Authority spent years consulting with federal, state, tribal and local public safety entities to determine specifically what they needed in their network. And in 2017, the federal government selected AT&T to bring the network to life through a unique 25-year public-private partnership.
Working together to serve first responders
Amidst titanic cultural shifts, health and safety threats and surrounding uncertainty, America’s first responders have experienced a lot. And FirstNet was there to serve them.
Top 5 highlights in the last few years include:
- Expanding the reach of FirstNet across rural, tribal and urban areas to now cover more first responders than anyone else.
- Delivering the dedicated FirstNet fleet to help keep public safety connected – no matter the emergency. Plus, we expanded the fleet to now include 100+ portable assets including the FirstNet One aerostat “blimp”, which is designed for use following large-scale, catastrophic events.
- Furthering public safety interoperability and launching FirstNet Push-to-Talk, the first-ever nationwide mission-critical standards-based push-to-talk solution to launch in the U.S.
- Going beyond connectivity by establishing the FirstNet Health & Wellness Coalition to better support the health and wellbeing of first responders. Based on the work of the Coalition, AT&T launched the FirstNet “ROG the Dog” animal-assisted therapy initiative to provide first responders with therapy dog services following a crisis.
- Bringing a one-of-a-kind 5G experience to public safety on FirstNet to meet their unique mission needs.
The impacts of FirstNet have been real, tangible, and, at times, lifesaving. We believe FirstNet is the most important wireless network in the nation because it is serving our first responders. And both AT&T and the FirstNet Authority are committed to continuously evolving and innovating to meet public safety’s ongoing needs over the next 20 years and beyond to help keep public safety and those they serve even safer.
Photo by David Lienemann / The White House