Making good on its promise to deliver preemption capabilities to First Responder Network Authority customers by the end of the year, AT&T says that it is now offering “ruthless preemption” services on its network, at no additional charge, to FirstNet customers in states that have opted in to the nationwide build-out of an LTE network for public safety users.

The carrier has been promoting the implementation of preemption across all of its commercial spectrum since early summer, as a way to ensure that first responders using AT&T’s network will be able to have reliable, mission-critical LTE access even before AT&T starts building out the Band 14 spectrum that was set aside for FirstNet use. Preemption enables public safety users to access the network even during periods of high congestion by moving commercial traffic (but not calls or texts to 911) onto other network spectrum.

“First responders have been very clear about their immediate need for preemption. During the collaborative conversations that shaped our FirstNet plan, preemption continually topped the list of mission-critical tools first responders wanted to see first on the network,” said Chris Sambar, SVP for AT&T – FirstNet. “So, we promised to make it available by the end of the year. And we’re proud to honor that commitment. This is game-changing for first responders, and as far as we know, this is the first-ever launch of preemption at this scale in the world.”

AT&T said that preemption is immediately available in states that have opted in to AT&T’s FirstNet Radio Access Network build-out, for “primary users.” That category includes fire, law enforcement, emergency medical services, emergency managers, dispatch and Public Safety Answering Points, according to AT&T.

Some limited priority for public safety traffic has been offered by wireless carriers over the years, but it has typically carried extra charges and has not crossed into preemption or the actual shifting of commercial traffic. AT&T is already offering priority for FirstNet first responder traffic, but says that “preemption goes a step further to make sure first responders can access FirstNet when they need to, 24/7/365.”

FirstNet CEO Mike Poth called the launch “a tremendous achievement for public safety personnel – who have asked for, fought for, and needed this solution for years. We are pleased that FirstNet is the first broadband network to deliver this capability to public safety.”

Verizon, as it seeks to keep its leading position in the public safety market, also plans to provide preemption by the end of this year.

In Virginia, the first state to opt in to FirstNet, Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Chief Richard Bowers noted that in major disasters such as the 9/11 attacks (to which he was a responder), Hurricane Katrina and others, communications issues were cited as major problems hindering emergency responders. Preemption capabilities for FirstNet, he said, are “monumental.”

“When you have a disaster situation, such as Katrina, or just a local disaster … or a terrorist event — any of those things, everyone picks up their phone. We don’t get a 911 call anymore, we get 10 for the same thing — so it gets busy,” Bowers said. “With preemption, what that does for our first responders is, they continue to be able to communicate.”

Fairfax County first responders have used multiple carriers over the years, including a current relationship with AT&T, Bowers said, so the county has been able to take advantage of the FirstNet offering since Virginia’s opt-in.

“I think the key factor is that now, we have something we didn’t have before,” Bowers said. “We now have something that was a key missing element, the missing piece. Communications is always key — communications, control and command are so important. We can communicate now more effectively.”

Verizon declines to bid on California’s RFP for FirstNet alternatives

New Hampshire is the only state which has opted out of the AT&T Radio Access Network build; 36 states and territories, out of 56, have opted in thus far. The governors of 20 states and territories — including large states such as California, Florida and New York — have until Dec. 28th to make their opt-in/opt out choice. The most recent addition was Missouri, which announced its opt-in earlier this week. According to AT&T, Connecticut’s Public Safety State Interoperable Executive Committee recommended yesterday that the state opt in, although Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy has not yet made a final decision.

In a press release on the launch of preemption, FirstNet and AT&T said that “an opt-out state will not be able to offer its first responders access to a similar capability until its alternative plan is approved and Band 14 is deployed, which will likely take years. ”

In California — one of the most closely-watched states because of its large population of first responders — Verizon has declined to bid on California’s request for proposal for FirstNet alternatives. In a statement, the carrier said: “Verizon remains committed to supporting public safety customers and agencies in California and across the country. Unfortunately, after carefully and extensively reviewing the State of California’s public safety network RFP requirements, we have chosen not to bid on the RFP. Technical and financial requirements dictated by FirstNet’s draft spectrum management lease agreement (SMLA) saddled the State of California — through no fault of its own — with onerous and vaguely defined mandates in its RFP that impacted our ability to create a response we believe best served public safety and Verizon.

“Vigorous competition that allows the industry and the marketplace to continue to grow and innovate is in the best interest of public safety and should be everyone’s shared goal. Instead, we believe FirstNet and its corporate partner are rigging the game in order to stifle true competition.”

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