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Competition in telecom price and service packages has been getting a lot of attention lately. However, network providers also have been pursuing other opportunities that consumers might miss if they’re exposed only to traditional advertising. AT&T’s cooperation with the U.S. government in developing a national emergency responder network is a case in point.

AT&T moved quickly to take the first steps toward launching the network since late March, when the U.S. Commerce Department chose it to be the government’s partner for establishing the responder system.

The company and the initial group of tech businesses involved in the project “have had an extremely productive month collaborating on a number of priorities, such as state plans and the development of an online portal that will be used to deliver the plans to the states and territories,” said Mike Poth, CEO of FirstNet, in a recent online post.

“We have also had initial discussions regarding the FirstNet core network architecture,” he added.

As project leader, the company is charged with providing 50 states and several territories with draft plans for participation in the national network linking emergency service agencies.

The FirstNet Partnership

The Commerce Department will provide 20 Mhz of broadband spectrum and US$6.5 billion in initial funding to the partnership.

AT&T will deploy and operate a nationwide high-speed broadband network dedicated to police, fire, ambulance services and other first responders. Over a projected duration of 25 years, AT&T expects to invest nearly $40 billion in the effort.

FirstNet, an agency established within the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, will administer the program on behalf of the federal government. Congress established the First Responder Network Authority — or FirstNet — in 2012 to create a much-needed nationwide interoperable broadband network dedicated exclusively to first responder agencies.

The need for better communication and coordination among such agencies on a national basis was revealed during the 2001 terrorist attack in New York. Currently, first responders use commercial networks — the same ones used by consumers and businesses — for mobile data and applications.

That can become problematic during a public safety crisis, when commercial networks become overwhelmed, noted AT&T.

First responders use more than 10,000 networks for voice communications, which often lack interoperability, the company pointed out. That severely limits first responders’ ability to communicate with each other when responding to a situation.

The law establishing FirstNet calls for the deployment and operation of the network on a single, national architecture. FirstNet will hold the spectrum license for the network, and it will be responsible for taking “all actions necessary” to build, deploy and operate the system in consultation with federal, state, tribal and local responder agencies, as well as other key stakeholders.

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