FirstNet: Reaching Rural and Remote Parts of America

By Jason Porter, senior vice president, FirstNet Program at AT&T

FirstNet is built for all public safety. That means every first responder in the country – career or volunteer; federal, tribal, state or local; urban, suburban or rural. And reaching rural and remote parts of America is one of our top priorities. Using all AT&T LTE bands and Band 14 spectrum, FirstNet currently covers more than 2.61 million square miles. In 2019 alone, we added more than 120,000 square miles of LTE coverage, which is roughly the size of New Mexico. To put it simply, we’ve been busy giving more first responders and the communities they serve access to the critical communications capabilities they need. But we aren’t stopping there.

We’re actively extending the nationwide reach of FirstNet to give agencies large and small the reliable, unthrottled connectivity and modern communications tools they need. To achieve this, our FirstNet network expansion is two-fold: rolling out Band 14 spectrum and launching purpose-built FirstNet sites. We’re also driving innovation to help address the unique challenges facing first responders who serve rural, remote and tribal communities.

Band 14 Spectrum

Band 14 is nationwide, high-quality spectrum set aside by the government specifically for FirstNet. And with Band 14 deployed in more than 700 markets1, we’ve surpassed 80% of our Band 14 nationwide coverage target – well ahead of schedule.

We look at Band 14 as public safety’s VIP lane. In an emergency, this band – or lane – can be cleared and locked just for FirstNet subscribers. That means only those on FirstNet will be able to access Band 14 spectrum, further elevating their connected experience and emergency response. That’s unique in the industry and something public safety won’t get anywhere but on the FirstNet network.

Additionally, we’re collaborating with rural network providers across the country to help build out additional LTE coverage and extend FirstNet’s reach in rural and tribal communities. For example, one rural provider is adding Band 14 spectrum and AT&T commercial LTE spectrum bands to hundreds of its cellular sites across rural Colorado and Nebraska, as well as select portions of South Dakota and Wyoming. Similar activities by other rural providers are also taking place in Alaska, Arizona, New Mexico, Wyoming and more to help us extend the reach of public safety’s network.

Purpose-Built FirstNet Sites

We also have over 1,000 new, purpose-built FirstNet sites planned as part of the initial nationwide FirstNet network expansion. And the majority of these are in rural areas. So far, we’ve launched over 250 of these sites across the country – including areas such as Lusk, Wyo.; Tilghman Island, Md.; Yamhill County, Ore.; Preston County, W.V.; Zerkel, Minn. and more. These sites were identified by state and public safety stakeholders as priority locations. With FirstNet, it’s about where first responders need connectivity. That’s what is driving our FirstNet build.

Unique Challenges Facing Rural First Responders

We also realize that emergencies don’t know zip codes. That’s why we’re addressing rural coverage needs in multiple ways to deploy the network in places where coverage may be difficult. From the FirstNet fleet of 76 dedicated deployable network assets to the Rapid Deployment Kit, which can envelop first responders in a 300-foot “connected bubble” – ideal for rural and remote emergency situations.

And unique to FirstNet, we’re launching high-power user equipment (HPUE) solutions, like the FirstNet Ready™ Assured Wireless Corporation embedded IoT module and USB connected modem. Following 3GPP standards, power class 1 HPUE solutions can transmit stronger signals. This means HPUE can significantly increase the coverage area for first responders serving rural, remote and tribal communities

Connecting Rural Communities

It’s with our ongoing network expansion that communities like Tulare County, Calif.; Pennington County, S.D.; Village of Linden, Wis.; the Oglala Sioux Tribe; and Mammoth Lakes, Calif. were able to modernize their communications and transform their emergency response:

  • To prepare for and meet the demand of caring for COVID-19 patients, Tulare County has set-up a remote, makeshift hospital at the Porterville Developmental Center. In a mutual-aid response effort, CalOES has loaned FirstNet Ready™ devices and service to local public safety and healthcare personnel. Additionally, the FirstNet team deployed a portable cell site from the dedicated FirstNet fleet to enhance coverage for public safety and healthcare workers in and around this critical healthcare facility. All at no additional charge, public safety agencies on FirstNet can request this temporary equipment for added emergency support.

“We are extremely grateful for the support from the FirstNet team at AT&T for providing additional network capacity for our remote, makeshift hospital at the Porterville Developmental Center in Tulare County. With this support, our first responders and healthcare personnel will have the priority connectivity they need, when they need it.” – Dennis Townsend, Tulare County Supervisor

  • Linden Police Department in rural Wisconsin turned to FirstNet to transform their first responders’ communication with new capabilities and reliable access to critical information while in the field. With Band 14 in the area, the department is better able to serve those who live, work and visit Linden and Iowa County.

“FirstNet has far exceeded our expectations for rural connectivity in rural, hilly southwest Wisconsin. Cellular coverage for public safety has been an issue for years prior to FirstNet investing in our area’s public safety needs. FirstNet listened to our needs and concerns from the start of the Band 14 build out. Our agency switched to FirstNet to have a reliable connection, and FirstNet has far exceeded expectations in what was previously an area riddled with cellular service dead zones. It has also increased our officer safety by providing 4G LTE cellular coverage to keep me and my officers safe.” – Chief Alan Schrank, Linden Police Department

  • Situated in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains the Mammoth Lakes Fire Protection District recently turned to FirstNet to supplement its land-mobile radio coverage. This rural community is based in a wildfire-prone area, making large-scale inter-agency communications critical for their lifesaving missions. Through FirstNet, Mammoth Lakes first responders have unthrottled connectivity to their network. And with push-to-talk capabilities, firefighters can communicate across smartphones and their traditional radios. Working hand-in-hand, sharing information and collaborating on the best possible solutions with the local public safety community has allowed us to jointly design and execute on a build that meets their operational needs today and into the future. That’s something they didn’t have before.

“Similar to other rural areas across the country, we’ve struggled with wireless connectivity. But with FirstNet, this is changing. The FirstNet team listened to our needs as they continue to build new sites, add Band 14 to existing sites, and establish interoperable communications to help us be better prepared for everyday emergencies and wildfire season. With FirstNet, we are experiencing reliable, unthrottled connectivity. We know FirstNet will be there, as public safety’s network.” – Chief Frank Frievalt, Mammoth Lakes Fire Protection District

These are just a few examples of how we’re bringing more reliable communications to rural communities across the country. Already covering over 99% of the U.S. population, FirstNet is the only nationwide, high-speed broadband communications platform dedicated to and purpose-built for America’s first responders and the extended public safety community.

FirstNet is built with AT&T in public-private partnership with the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet Authority) – an independent government agency. As such, we have a responsibility unlike any other network provider. And unlike commercial offerings, FirstNet provides real, dedicated mobile broadband when needed with always-on priority and preemption for first responders.

To learn more about the FirstNet network, go to FirstNet.com. And check out the FirstNet Authority’s Fiscal Year 2019 annual report to Congress to learn more about our ongoing work to deliver an unrivaled mobile broadband communications experience to the public safety community.

1Markets defined by FCC CMAs.

FirstNet® and the FirstNet service logo are the intellectual property of the First Responder Network Authority.