AT&T has long been one of the greatest consumer communications brands in the world, but the carrier is beginning to become “a public-safety company” through its first-responder-centric efforts in the development of FirstNet and next-generation 911 (NG911) networks, according to Scott Agnew, the new COO of AT&T’s FirstNet team.

Two weeks ago, AT&T executives revealed that FirstNet gained 377,000 public-safety connections during the fourth quarter of 2022, accounting for more than half of the carrier’s overall wireless growth numbers. In addition to these figures, Agnew (pictured above, delivering a keynote address at IWCE) noted that meeting the coverage and network-performance requirements of FirstNet has benefited the overall AT&T network as carrier begins to make a crucial pivot.

“Our learnings from FirstNet are going into our AT&T network,” Agnew said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “As we talk about his transformation and what we’re learning, I think AT&T—all the way from the very top [of the organization]—is starting that transformation to being a public-safety company

“We’re thinking public safety first, and it makes the rest of the network better when we start with public safety. That’s going to be one of my major initiatives as we move forward—to make sure that we continue that.”

In 2017, AT&T was selected to be the contractor to build and maintain the nationwide public-safety broadband network (NPSBN) on the 700 MHz Band 14 spectrum licensed to the FirstNet Authority. After spending a year working with state officials on the FirstNet coverage in each state, the initial five-year FirstNet buildout is expected to be complete—on time and on budget—by the end of March.

Although the initial construction of the FirstNet system is virtually done, Agnew repeatedly emphasized that AT&T and the FirstNet Authority will continue to enhance the NPSBN during the remaining 19 years of the public-private partnership that is scheduled to expire in March 2042.

“We’re not done yet,” Agnew said. “We need to continue the momentum, and the FirstNet Authority needs to continue the momentum, as we enter the next phase of the contract, where reinvestment occurs. When 5G is ready for public safety—completely ready, with the right functionality, with priority and preemption—clearly you can see the next-generation evolution there, in terms of coverage, innovation and a continued focus on mission-critical [solutions].

“Our commitment to public safety is to continue to evolve the network. They [first responders] need to have the most technically capable solutions available, [in terms of] speed, connectivity, reliability, coverage.”

In an effort to make this vision a reality, AT&T’s FirstNet team continues to evaluate new solutions to ensure that there are “other tools that are going to be at public safety’s disposal,” Agnew said, noting ongoing tests of satellite-based technologies as an example. “We’re not going to stop innovating.”

Through the FirstNet initiative, AT&T is delivering broadband connectivity to first responders, many of whom receive their emergency-response directions from dispatcher in 911 centers. AT&T is also very active in this space, dedicating significant resources to deploying Emergency Services IP Networks (ESInets)—the IP-based network backbone that supports NG911 technology—in 911 jurisdictions throughout the U.S.

Ensuring that communications flow smoothly between ESInets and FirstNet is a priority for AT&T as it serves the public-safety community, according to Agnew

“The public-safety event starts with the call into the 911 center, and AT&T is really the only major nationwide carrier that’s doing that right now, just like we’re the only nationwide public-safety [broadband] provider,” Agnew said. “Think about it: the big part of this is the network component of making sure that call—wherever it’s coming from, whether it’s wireless or wireline—is properly routed into the network, with proper location and proper response there.

“By having the equipment side and the network-connectivity side, we bring together the entire package for our next-generation 911 customers. [AT&T is] he only place that you can go where the entire network—from security to equipment to devices to connectivity—can be done. We can do it all, which is pretty amazing.”