AT&T Launches Public-Safety Core, FirstNet Subscribers to Transition by May
Tuesday, March 27, 2018 | Comments
The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) and AT&T launched the FirstNet evolved packet core (EPC), meeting the carrier’s goal to deliver the core by the end of March, a year after AT&T signed its 25-year contract to provide public-safety Long Term Evolution (LTE) services. FirstNet officials are still testing the core, and most FirstNet customers will be moved to the core by May.

AT&T said the EPC is built on physically separate hardware, creating and controlling the experience for FirstNet subscribers. The core processes and carries public safety’s vital information and forms the basis for a unified, interoperable and nationwide communications system, an AT&T statement said.

“It’s been a non-stop 12 months, and we’re proud of the quick progress we’ve made in this short timeframe, consistently delivering on or ahead of schedule,” said Chris Sambar, senior vice president, AT&T – FirstNet. “But bringing the FirstNet network core to life is one of the most exciting milestones yet.”

While the FirstNet EPC was under construction, first responders used the AT&T commercial core. “But now that the FirstNet evolved packet core has launched, we can begin moving users to this new, dedicated experience,” an AT&T statement said. “We’ll start with a controlled introduction with a limited customer set while FirstNet completes testing of the network core. Once the controlled introduction wraps, more FirstNet customers will be moved — likely in the April/May timeframe.”

To ensure the network delivers the performance and integrity public safety demands, the FirstNet core will continue to undergo validation and testing with FirstNet, FirstNet Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Jeff Bratcher said. “Alongside AT&T, we will exercise the functionality of the public-safety features, measure redundancy under a variety of conditions, and validate the overall performance and resiliency of network components,” he said in a blog. “With the results of these tests, FirstNet and AT&T will validate that the network will be there when public safety needs it.”

Bratcher said the final phase of testing and validation is expected to be completed in April and May. “In the meantime, FirstNet users can begin moving to the core as part of a controlled introduction by AT&T,” he said. “Once this phase of testing and validation is completed, more FirstNet users will move to the core.”

Earlier this month, Sambar said delivering the public-safety core is a $1.5 billion initiative.

We’ve been transitioning to FirstNet to take advantage of our network — a network designed for and being built just for us,” said Brazos County Sheriff Chris Kirk. “And we’ve already seen the tremendous difference FirstNet can make in helping us cut through the clutter and get access to the vital information we need to keep ourselves and those we protect out of harm’s way. That was before the launch of the FirstNet network core. So, we’re expecting it to only get better from here, which we believe will continue to improve our operations.”

AT&T said only FirstNet traffic will move through the core, designed with a “defense-in-depth approach that helps maintain security at every level.” The EPC will be monitored 24/7/365 by a dedicated security operations center with a dedicated team of experts. FirstNet can check on the network any time through a custom portal that provides full visibility into the security operations center.

FirstNet subscribers can now access First Priority, AT&T’s always-on access to priority and pre-emption with three priority level options. Public-safety agencies can assign priority levels based on their command structure or shifting needs.

The Incident Management Portal is also part of the EPC. Depending on the event or emergency, public safety can uplift critical users to the highest priority levels. Using the portal, they can make adjustments in near real time. Public safety can also temporarily uplift other non-first responder users, such as utilities or transportation agencies, which are essential to managing the incident.

FirstNet subscribers will use a dedicated subscriber identity module (SIM), and moving to the FirstNet EPC potentially could require only swapping out the commercial SIM card with a FirstNet SIM card. Users can now also take advantage of recently announced FirstNet-ready devices.

The Netgear Nighthawk M1 Mobile router – a mobile hotspot router for in-vehicle connectivity – is another product that will accept the FirstNet SIM. The FirstNet SIM will also work with other devices, but firmware updates may be required.

Bratcher also said the public-safety core supports future mission-critical services such as mission-critical push-to-talk (PTT) and location-based services.

He said the FirstNet core will help enable the network’s 99.99 percent end-to-end service availability. Although FirstNet CEO Mike Poth mentioned five and six nines reliability and availability during his keynote at the International Wireless Communications Expo (IWCE), Sambar confirmed later that day the FirstNet core will enable four nines service availability. For redundancy and to improve performance nationwide, core network elements will be geographically distributed across multiple locations.

“This is what public safety has spent years advocating for,” said Scott Edson, executive director, Los Angeles Regional Interoperable Communication System (LA-RICS). “We knew giving first responders a network that they could truly call their own was possible from our work on LA-RICS — one of five FirstNet early builder projects. But to see public safety’s network core roar to life nationwide, well, there are no words for how meaningful that is. We at LA-RICS look forward to connecting our sites to the FirstNet network core.”

Before California opted in to FirstNet last year, LA-RICS Joint Powers Authority (JPA) unanimously approved an agreement with AT&T to transfer and assign the LA-RICS public-safety broadband network to AT&T. AT&T agreed to pay $12 million for the assets and $2.5 million in replacement services to LA-RICS, and to provide up to 3,300 replacement routers, SIMs and devices.

Harris County, another early builder project, tweeted March 27 that it had turned down its own network in conjunction with the launch of the FirstNet core. 

"It has been a true honor being a first builder network serving public safety," the tweet said. "We will continue our efforts in solutions adoption in public safety."

Verizon announced that it would launch its own dedicated public-safety EPC on March 29.

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