AT & T’s public safety network gets new features, including full tower-to-core encryption and a custom 5G setup.
Private public safety cell carrier FirstNet adds 5G support and new encryption for user data. Operated as a public-private partnership between AT&T and an independent government agency called the FirstNet Authority, the network is exclusively for first responders such as police, fire and EMS agencies and employees and other similar organizations.
AT & T’s 5G service has been inaccessible to FirstNet users since it was first launched because a number of FirstNet-exclusive features found in FirstNet 4G LTE are not yet available on the newer, more modern network.
FirstNet users get automatic priority and priority on AT & T’s commercial cellular bands, as well as access to a dedicated LTE Band 14 spectrum set reserved for FirstNet customers. This means that FirstNet users get priority over all other AT&T customers when making calls or using data, and if normal channels get too congested, Band 14 access will remain open even in an emergency.
SEE: The Future of 5G: Insights, launches, use cases and more (free PDF) (TechRepublic)
If you have had problems sending text messages, making calls, or using data at a sporting event or concert, you have experienced the difficulties the FirstNet network is trying to solve. In an emergency like the Boston Marathon bombing, the situation gets worse as many users try to communicate at the same time. FirstNet was established after recommendations were made in the 9/11 Commission report to build a more robust cellular network for emergency responders.
“5G for FirstNet is not your typical 5G,” said Jason Porter, head of AT&T, Public Sector and FirstNet. “No doubt 5G has a lot to offer to the entire public safety community, but most importantly is to enable us to adopt a first responsive centric view of how we approach deployment … as new technologies emerge.”
The technology required to prioritize and prioritize is not yet available in the 5G network as in the 4G LTE network. In addition, the 5G network was too new to be available to users who needed an always-on connection, where outages could slow down emergency response times. However, FirstNet offers an interesting way of managing this while offering access to the high speeds made possible by AT & T’s mmWave 5G network. 5G upgrades will be released this month for FirstNet users.
Regular commercial AT&T customers will always be on the 5G network if it can be used over the 4G LTE network. FirstNet devices will automatically switch dynamically between 5G and 4G networks based on network and connection conditions. Also, voice traffic on FirstNet devices will always travel over the LTE network with priority and prevention features, as there is little benefit of running voice traffic over 5G, and successful voice calls are very important, especially for first responders.
Also, certain bits of data (such as streaming video) pass over the 5G network and other data – like FirstNet’s push-to-talk radio capabilities – over the LTE network, even the same device. This type of simultaneous data separation between networks on the same device is not available to commercial customers.
Additionally, FirstNet is introducing encryption, the first of its kind, between the cell tower and the FIrstNet core network. In other words, all FirstNet traffic running on a network separate from the commercial AT&T network will be secured from the cell tower and FirstNet Core via the backhaul. AT&T says it has installed unspecified security upgrades to every cell tower in the country to support this feature. Houston and Cleveland will be operational this month, and the rest of the country will be completed by the first quarter of next year.